Published on Sustainable Cities

Amsterdam Smart City

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Amsterdam is aggressively developing its ‘smart’ electrical grid. The smart part is the inter-linked power system, and the efforts made to involve all parts of the community. The result to-date is impressive: in just two years 71 partners have joined (and growing), pilot energy savings of 13 percent were achieved, and a possible reduction of 1.2 million tonnes CO2e already identified if pilots scaled-up city-wide. The program grew from a smart electrical grid to a ‘smart city’; in eighteen months Amsterdam Smart City or ASC, hosted or attended more than 50 smart city conferences.

The four pillars of ASC program are: (i) cooperation; (ii) smart technology and behavior change; (iii) knowledge exchange; and (iv) seek economically viable initiatives. Much of the impetus of ASC came from the establishment of a Euro 60 Million catalytic climate and energy investment fund created when the electricity and gas company was privatized.

But the really smart aspects of Amsterdam’s efforts are its overall progress toward a ‘sustainable city’. Amsterdam’s progress to a smarter city is likened to a ‘flesh and bones’ approach. The ‘bones’ include large-scale electricity generation and distribution (where most of the initial focus has been), roads and transit, water supply and wastewater, waste disposal, and combined heat and cooling.

The ‘flesh’ or softer aspects are found in neighborhoods and local communities. The smartness of Amsterdam is based on the integration of the chunkier hard-infrastructure bones with the softer community-based groups, neighborhood associations, and user-groups. The smaller pockets of community incorporate residential, commercial, institutional, and occasionally industry.

Fully integrating small-scale and large-scale – pushing complimentarity instead of competition – is the strength of Amsterdam’s current management. The bones are growing around what the flesh is willing and able to do. The plan is ambitious: 200 electric vehicle charging stations by 2015 supporting 15,000 EVs; more electric scooters, boats and bicycles (scooters are particularly high in NOx emissions), and introduction of ‘temporary windmills’ – guaranteeing rural residents an end-date and urging wind mill establishment at sea.

Amsterdam certainly has its share of challenges: the more rural area north of the City, where the majority of new windmills are supposed to go, is opposed to new turbines; enormous amounts of energy is needed to keep the City, which is some 2 meters below sea level, from flooding; electricity pricing now rewards heavier users; the Netherland’s population density and limited land area make it particularly vulnerable to food security; and social agitation and concerns with immigration sprout-up every now and then. These challenges should give some solace to other cities. Every city is facing a growing array of challenges and threats. No city, no matter how wealthy, or how well managed, can afford to be complacent. Sustainability has to be a group effort; it is a process not a product. However Amsterdam highlights that those cities that accommodate changes, are open with the community, and mesh hard and soft aspects are best able to weather the tempests every city faces.

Probably the greatest strength of Amsterdam is the city’s global reach and inter-connectivity. That Amsterdam is a global city is obvious. How this strengthens the city is less obvious but glimpses are available. The city is partnering with Beijing, for example; the Smart Grid being developed in Amsterdam is through a broad partnership including IBM, Cisco and Accenture – together competitors are cooperating. Amsterdam will probably emerge as one of the first cities to publicly wrestle with, and find the balance between cooperation and competition. Amsterdam appears determined to win, and to bring as many cities possible along with it.


Dan Hoornweg

Professor and Jeff Boyce Research Chair, University of Ontario Institute of Technology

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