Amsterdam has never shied away from innovation. It was in Amsterdam that the groundwork for modern capitalism was laid, with the emergence of the first multinational companies and the evolution of stock markets from small-time lenders into muscular institutions capable of financing international enterprise.
But where once the city’s fortunes hinged on the return to port of a spice-filled frigate, growth now sails on seas of data. The capture, analysis and trading of huge troves of raw information is at the core of Amsterdam’s growth plans as it transforms itself into a truly smart city, fit to compete globally as a hub for business, innovation and leisure.
The benefits of becoming a smart city are varied, but for Amsterdam three opportunities stood out:
- To use data to make the city as convenient as possible as a place to live and work – making it an attractive destination for businesses and talented people
- To experiment with, learn from and pioneer best practice in the application of data to help overcome urban and organizational challenges
- To harvest large volumes of data – on everything from energy usage to traffic volumes – that could be shared or traded with businesses and institutions to develop better or new services
However, despite the change of trading commodity, some ways of doing things never get old. Amsterdam’s early fortune was made by the combined efforts of private enterprise and the government, and the private/public partnership at the heart of this initiative could serve as inspiration for any city or organization aiming to get smarter.
Transforming Amsterdam into a smart city
“Amsterdam is not just any organization. It is a city of narrow streets, multiple canals and aging buildings, built for a different era. Modernizing was both an opportunity and a challenge,” says Frank Harmsen, Partner and Market Segment Leader for Government and Public Sector in the Netherlands and Belgium, EY Consulting.
As with so many transformational initiatives, strong leadership and collaboration between stakeholders can make a significant difference. Amsterdam’s collection of vocal and independent stakeholders includes elected officials from varied urban and suburban districts, government department managers and a diverse group of businesses and citizens, from a population of nearly a million people. Getting these people to come together behind a single goal could have been challenging.
But come together they did. Setting the standard from modern urban stakeholder collaboration and innovation, they took their city’s vaunted history of public/private partnerships into the 21st century via the Amsterdam Smart City (ASC) initiative, started in 2009 to bring Amsterdam into the upper echelons of global connected cities. The initiative focuses on eight key areas:
● Smart Mobility (GPS data is being used to manage traffic flow in real time)
● Smart Living (The Green Living Lab)
● Smart Society (The “circular city” scheme aims at maximizing recycling)
● Smart Areas (Climate Street – discussed below)
● Smart Economy (the launch of the Mainport Innovation Fund)
● Big & Open Data (open data available for sourcing on data.amsterdam.nl)
● Infrastructure (re-negotiated green energy contracts)
● Living Labs (redeveloping areas where new projects can be tested)
The Amsterdam Smart City program’s success arose from several key features, which can serve as valuable lessons for any organization – or city – planning to make a similar transition.
1. Establish strong leadership and support from the top
Two men in particular are responsible for the success of the program. The first is Amsterdam’s CTO Ger Baron, dubbed “Mr. Outside” for his strong advocacy work and political skills in engaging city leaders and other stakeholders.
The second is Berent Daan, Amsterdam’s director of research, information and statistics, and previously a wethouder (a kind of ‘city alderman’) for eight years, giving him invaluable insight into municipal politics. Daan is “Mr. Inside” to Baron’s Mr. Outside, and together with his team implemented the development processes at the heart of Amsterdam’s transformation into a data-driven city of the future.
The backing of the political establishment has also been critical. Admirably, Amsterdam’s political leaders continued to pursue the Smart City project despite changes of administration, and despite the modest early results that flew in the face of pressure to show concrete benefits. It takes time and perseverance to innovate. Long-term vision is hard to cultivate, but Amsterdam achieved it.
2. Grow a talent pool
One of the key challenges in a Smart City initiative — and in any major analytics strategy — is attracting and retaining talent. A lack of talent stifles innovation and keeps in place a pre-digital city destined to rely on tourism alone.
But here Amsterdam proved itself a leader. For starters, the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions (formed by the city’s CTO) helped get the right talent on board. The Institute is a university program dedicated to developing smart cities. It generates ideas that can be directly applied to Amsterdam, while also making the city a hub for people more generally interested in using data to make a positive difference to the world.