+ The Startup Capital of Europe is a Hub for Tech and Innovation +
There are 1281 bridges in Amsterdam. This might seem like a fairly throwaway fact to most of us, but to the Amsterdam Smart City Initiative, it’s a huge leap forward. Because until this year, we didn’t know how many bridges there were.
With 32 district departments covering over 12,000 data sets you can start to see why. With no centralised hub for all the information they gather, the sharing of statistics was something busy government offices did not have the time or the resources to do.
Now Amsterdam has City Data, the fuel for its Smart City engine.
+ What Makes Amsterdam Different? +
Something that's really special about Amsterdam is that it has made its City Data open source. Everyone can access the information, and anyone can add further data sets to the collection. City Data is available online, (Dutch) and it is easy to search, download or link to your own system.
+ Big cities need to adapt +
50% of the world’s population currently live in cities. This figure is predicted to increase to 70% by 2050 - which will include an overall global population expansion of around 2 billion people during this period. In a city like Amsterdam, where much of the infrastructure is from the Reformation Era, adaptations must take place to ensure the capital’s roads, housing, services and quality of life improve. At the same time, cities must become more sustainable to avoid increases in air pollution and further contributing to climate change.
In April 2016, Amsterdam won Europe’s Capital of Innovation award. This year, the Netherlands jumped five places to rank 3rd in The Global Innovation Index 2017. And it’s showing no signs of slowing down.
+ A Brief History +
- Between 15-20% of the Netherlands has been reclaimed from the surrounding sea, lakes, marshes and swamps since the 1200’s.
- Only 50% of the country is more than 1 meter above sea level.
- 27% is below sea level, and this area contains a fifth of the population.
The City of Amsterdam is located 2 meters below sea level. As with all early civilisations, water gives life to a city. The ability to produce and transport goods has always been vital to the Netherlands’ survival. It is still the 8th biggest exporter in the world, a trade that makes up 82.5% of the country’s GDP.
The citizens have always been aware of how fragile the relationship with the water can be, and the Netherlands is accustomed to using technology to survive an ever-present risk of flooding. In the past, if you did not tend to your crops properly and maintain the irrigation system, dykes, levees and barriers, your neighbour's crops would suffer too. In many ways, this convention is still relevant now. These principles of respect, collaboration and community have carried through over the centuries, which is why the Amsterdam of today is still a model of shrewd infrastructure and innovation.
+ My Neighbour App (MijnBuur) +
An example of this framework is the ‘owner association’ law (Vereniging van Eigenaren) that covers every apartment in the Netherlands. Although individuals own their separate apartments, everyone in the building has to cooperate to maintain, clean and insure the structure as a whole. This is usually done via a monthly service charge and means you can request finances from the pot if, for example, your neighbour's shower were to leak and damage your ceiling.
The MijnBuur app builds on this neighbourly relationship. You are connected directly to your neighbours who can alert you to any dangers, something they need or anything they want to get done. The aim is to make citizens more socially responsible and solve disputes without involving the municipality. The project should save money while also improving community relationships - and shape future policy by providing the government with useful data about common issues between residents in the capital.
+ Tapping Into The Tech Culture +
- The Netherlands is the most densely populated country in Europe and one of the most in the world - with 4.88 people per km².
- This rises to 4439 people per km² in Amsterdam - which currently has a population of over 820,000.
Add to that 14 million tourists per year…
…and you can see why the government are keen to create as many opportunities for innovation as possible. Both the business sector and the Amsterdam government actively do their best to attract the top technology and innovation talent and keep it here through schemes like the International Talent Event, Startupbootcamp and Coding for Amsterdam.
Quite often the data produced by users of digital platforms has greater value than the service offered. By making Amsterdam’s city data open source, the economic value that usually reserved for corporations is given back to the citizens to reinvest in new and innovative solutions to the city’s problems.
And it’s not only free data. There is already a robust digital infrastructure and ICT ecosystem in Amsterdam. The Netherlands has the fastest internet in the EU. Support for startups is everywhere. Whether that be access to experienced Startup Exchanges, modern coworking spaces, world-famous accelerators and incubators or introductions to the many venture capitalists, angels and investors in the capital.
In 2016, startups in Amsterdam raised €194m, which was 76% of the total funding for startups in the whole of the Netherlands. Lumos Global, a provider of clean and affordable solar power, raised almost half of that. A reminder that sustainability and social entrepreneurship are still at the forefront of the city’s aspirations.
The Amsterdam Smart City Initiative (ASC)
Since its conception in 2009, the ASC has facilitated over 80 pilot projects aimed at making the city smarter. In one early programme, the Department of Research and Statistics went directly into individual government departments in the capital and access data directly.
Using statistics from insurance companies alongside information about the cost of treatment, they found that some areas with high levels of people with depression were not receiving proportionate levels of care. The city put further funds into an education programme aimed at those who were resisting treatment or did not want to acknowledge their disease - and increased the number receiving medical care.
+ Plastic Free Rivers +
This pilot highlights the importance of not only collecting information but also organising and sharing it. In a recent Makathon for plastic-free rivers, designers Anne Marieke Eveleens, Saskia Studer and Francis Zoet used principles shared by the oil and dredging industries to create ‘The Great Bubble Barrier’. The simple idea places a tube with holes at the bottom of a river. By pumping air through this, you create a ‘bubble barrier’ that stops plastic floating in the river and guides waste to the banks for collection.
For a city like Amsterdam, with a complex and open canal system, this is an invaluable innovation. The method is cheap and can be easily applied to other waterways across the world, providing a solution to the 8 million tons of plastic that are dumped into the ocean every year.
Van Plestik has taken this solution one step further by gathering the waste plastic collected and transforming it into a building material for 3D printers. These printers can create high-quality and affordable plastic objects for a range of applications. Van Plestik is part of a scheme run by StartupAmsterdam called Startup in Residence.
+ StartupAmsterdam +
A 2015 collaboration between the City of Amsterdam and 250 stakeholders in the tech sector. The aim was to unify and amplify the startup system in Amsterdam and build an ecosystem.
The objective was to be a one stop shop for startups, connecting them to key players, mentors, investors, tech talent and launching customers. On their website, you can search job boards, find a co-working space, see an event calendar, read relevant news articles, check out university courses, join a network of communities including 80+ corporates and get support from liaison staff.
At Eli5 we have used the system to connect with smart city planners, test out our latest digital products, network with similar companies and find talent. We give back to the system by organising meetups and internships to share our methods and experiences with those just starting out in industry. For example, this year we wanted to beta-test our online proposal tool and quickly found freelancer groups who were willing to give us feedback. Then in exchange, we provided the software to them for free.
In just two years, the project has solidified Amsterdam’s status as the centre of the EU tech scene. In a very short time they have:
- Established a corporate network
- Created Launchpad Meetups to connect corporates and startups
- Initiated Amsterdam Capital Week to connect startups to capital
- Launched startup academies including BSSA (B.Startup School Amsterdam) and the Growth Tribe Academy
- Co-organised international startup bootcamps
- Introduced coding classes into school curriculums
+ Startup in Residence +
One of the initiatives supported by StartupAmsterdam is Startup in Residence, a governmental incubator.
Each year, the municipality evaluate the concerns of the people and create a set of social challenges for startups to solve using city data. By doing this, they tap into the huge startup culture in Amsterdam and the talented application, platform and software developers they employ.
With anywhere between 1500-2000 startups in Amsterdam at any one time, collaborating with creatives and developers speeds up the innovation process considerably. It also means that citizens can be directly involved in the future of their city.
If the solutions prove successful, the City of Amsterdam will invest in the company or become their launching customers. Working with the municipality presents a unique opportunity for a startup to access the support of city experts and their network. The scheme has backed almost all of the apps mentioned in this article.
The pilot scheme in 2015 produced five viable projects including an app that encourages residents to separate their waste and an app that helps to get visitors out of their hotels and accommodations and also spread tourists more evenly by providing information about Amsterdam’s lesser known attractions, called Wyzer.
+ Wyzer App by Wander +
What is so smart about the app is that it helps to keep people off the beaten path, while improving their experience of the city. The app connects to a compass rather than a map, so you are still heading in the right direction, but can explore different routes to get there. They call this ‘fuzzy navigation’. The app highlights ‘hidden gems’ for you to discover along the way. So when you get home, you have a more unique story to tell than the majority of tourists - and the locals are happy with reduced congestion.
The tech uses map, GPS and tourism data, then relies on a bit of community collaboration to suggest the best places to recommend to users.
+ The Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (AMS) +
AMS was conceived by Delft University, Wageningen University and MIT in response to a call for proposals from the city to develop metropolitan solutions to practical urban issues.
Launching an Institute means research and, more importantly, small-scale testing can be carried out. Relatively cheap applications and platforms can be made to validate ideas quickly and create viable real-time data and analytics.
AMS is part of a project to move on from the conventional forms of public data used by apps like Wyzer and research ways to produce large-scale, geosocial data. This is mined from sensors, GPS devices and mobile phones. However, this information is more human-oriented and also benefits from previously untapped forms of community information from social media, LoRa networks and open data portals.
In June 2016, the Netherlands became the first country in the world to have a nationwide LoRa network to facilitate the Internet of Things. Thus, it is the perfect Living Lab to test this new type of data.
+ Benefits of Big Urban Data +
One of the most ambitious projects at AMS is the Social Urban Data Lab. Researchers and developers are building state of the art technology for the “acquisition, enrichment, integration, analysis and visualisation of big urban data”.
If you can gather knowledge about the challenges and grievances in real-time and from a vast group of citizens, then urban planners and decision makers will be much better informed. Inevitably, this means the policy will serve the community more effectively and improve the quality of life.
+ Social Glass +
One of the outcomes from the Social Urban Data Lab is Social Glass. This web-based platform utilises real-time urban big data analytics and forecasting to create a “reflection of the human landscape”.
By analysing word meanings and the relationships between them with advanced lexical semantics and combining the results with machine learning, the team can determine the condition, mood, desires - almost any emotion - of the public.
When you begin to cross reference this with geolocation data and other open data from the municipality, you can start to establish patterns and map the mood of the city. So if a local event is disturbing residents, ambient social data can help to direct planners to the problem. Or if a long museum queue is annoying tourists the platform can send alerts telling others to avoid the attraction until it is less busy.
The science isn’t perfect. Social posts are diverse in character and content, lack structure and can be biased and ambiguous. It will take some time for the artificial intelligence to learn to recognise patterns and validate the data. But by further engaging citizens in the smart city initiative, Amsterdam has an advantage when it comes to the next step.
+ The Future: Smart City 3.0 +
The first iteration of the Smart City was very technology focused. Large companies like IBM and Cisco were often criticised for having too much influence and pushing cities to adopt technology that they did not yet have the infrastructure in place to use properly.
Amsterdam’s Chief Technology Officer, Ger Baron, said in an interview with the MIT Sloan Management Review that “every company that comes here and tells us how it works, they’re wrong because they don’t have a clue how a city works...there is a big difference between how people think it works and how it works”. This became more apparent when he began the task of creating a city-wide data inventory and realised no one had a total, collated figure for the bridges in the capital. Those who had run the city for centuries didn’t understand it fully either. Part of Baron’s job is to ensure corporate interests do not overpower civic ones, which can quite often happen when a city rushes to get smarter.
Smart City 2.0 is characterised by being led by the city itself rather than the technology providers. This version focuses on improving the quality of life for residents and visitors and designs tools in consultation with citizens, to ensure solutions are specific to their needs. This is what Amsterdam has been doing with schemes like Startups in Residence, by setting challenges based entirely on the concerns of the people.
The next phase is citizen co-creation. Smart City 3.0 will still need to be enabled by both technology and by the city but will be led by the people and communities. Schemes like Repair Cafes or Tool Lending Libraries have already started in Amsterdam and are often run exclusively by the public, for the public. The app Verbeterdebuurt literally translates to ‘Improve The Neighbourhood’ and provides Amsterdammers with a convenient way to highlight problems and make suggestions for changes. It is GPS-enabled, and images can be uploaded to save time on lengthy descriptions.
Residents can detect the city’s requirements far quicker than administrators can. And by working collaboratively, they can often come up with the solutions faster too. If the government stops treating citizens as customers or only as recipients of a service and allow them to be co-creators of the city, Amsterdam will continue to get smarter. Just so long as it keeps building broadband, wireless and Internet of Things infrastructures. And, most importantly, City Data is maintained.
Featured Image Credit: Instagram @fetherico