First published in AMS business magazine. Author: Catalina Iorga

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re the world’s most experimental city per capita in terms of ICT pilot initiatives. But what sets us apart is that we don’t experiment for the sake of it; we strive for positive societal impact,” says Ger Baron, Chief Technology Officer of the City of Amsterdam since 2014 and chair of the steering committee of Amsterdam Smart City (ASC). ASC is a unique partnership co-founded in 2009 by, amongst others, the Amsterdam Economic Board, the Municipality of Amsterdam, energy provider Alliander, design consultancy Arcadis, the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences (Hogeschool van Amsterdam) and the Amsterdam ArenA – home to Amsterdam football club Ajax and test lab for the stadiums of the future.

Google ‘smart city’ and you will see ASC’s homepage as the second organic search result, surpassed only by Wikipedia’s entry on the topic. Whereas Wikipedia dedicates nearly 1,800 words to contouring what a successful smart urban development looks like, Baron cuts right to the chase: “A smart city uses technology to foster economic growth that is also sustainable, while improving the quality of life of its inhabitants.” ASC is very much a goaloriented platform: “We want to give people more options so they can make smarter choices in different areas, such as energy, education, healthcare and mobility.”

For Baron, a smart city is more than the implementation of various technologies that enable these more informed choices. “Ultimately, I see the city as an open platform able to meet residents’ demands through resource-efficient and user-centric solutions. We provide the connectivity, energy and data necessary for start-ups and entrepreneurs to develop their solutions.” Amsterdam was the first city to dub itself an open platform, Baron points out, with places such as Barcelona, Dubai and Singapore now following its lead.

The smart tipping point

Alongside 100 project partners, including businesses, local authorities, research institutes and the city’s residents, ASC is working on more than 90 innovative, techdriven initiatives to solve Amsterdam’s most pressing urban challenges, including mobility and the transition to renewable energy. “We’ve reached a tipping point where ASC is no longer trying to do things better, but to do things differently,” Baron explains.

For instance, through the integration of IT solutions and smart energy grids, the ASC is pioneering the establishment of a distributed energy network as a means to make the city more sustainable. A prime example on the energy front is the Vehicle2Grid pilot. Launched in 2014 as a three-year project, this program gives residents of Amsterdam's Nieuw-West district the chance to store locally produced energy from solar panels in their electric car battery, or to feed it back to the grid. The results speak for themselves: the project saw one household’s dependence on the energy grid drop from 74% to 40% in a year’s time. “Vehicle2Grid proves that successful smart-city initiatives can be small; we started with 100 vehicles, but what we learned has the potential to change the way we design an energy grid,” Baron adds.

Tech goals in the stadium

The Amsterdam ArenA is the quintessential ASC Living Lab, a testing ground where, in addition to mobility, companies can trial new innovations in areas such as sustainability, entertainment, visitor experience and safety. “While most stadiums rely on government subsidies to survive, the ArenA is probably the only sporting venue of this kind making a profit. And our ambition is to turn it into the most technologically advanced stadium in the world,” Baron says.

In the process, ASC is also using the immense potential the stadium has to, for instance, provide realtime traffic information data that can help improve mobility. “Every two weeks Ajax has a home game and football supporters travel a combined 2.1 million kilometres to attend,” he explains.

An urban lab

“ASC and its Living Labs make up just one of the four elements that turn Amsterdam into an urban testing ground. The others are the compact and accessible city itself, a strong ecosystem of innovative startups and the Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions,” says Baron. The last, also known as AMS, is a public-private institute co-founded by a consortium of academic partners (the Delft University of Technology, Wageningen University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology), societal partners (ASC, the Waag Society and the City of Boston) and industry partners (including KPN, Accenture, Alliander and Cisco) that officially opened in 2014.

“As the city’s Chief Technology Officer, I consult with AMS on a regular basis to ensure that their research is relevant to the city and to help implement exciting projects on a city-wide basis,” Baron explains. AMS is fully supported by the Municipality of Amsterdam, which will be sharing open data with AMS researchers. The Municipality will also facilitate the use of the city as a testing and piloting site for AMS as it tackles challenges including resource and food security, mobility and logistics, water and waste management, and health and wellbeing.

Recent AMS projects include the year-long circular-economy initiative ‘Prospecting the Urban Mines of Amsterdam’ (or Urban Pulse), launched in January 2016. Within the project, Leiden University and the Delft University of Technology join up with the Amsterdam-based Waag Society, an institute for art, science and technology, and Metabolic, a systems consulting and cleantech development fi rm, to create an interactive geological map of the built environment, as well as a plan to harvest and repurpose metals such as steel, copper, aluminium and gold from urban structures.

Building a future-proof city

The municipality has an ambitious vision for Amsterdam’s future, if its iconic plan to install one million solar panels – one per Amsterdammer – is anything to go by. “We also want to make the city rain-proof and ensure it has the best energy system of all the world’s capitals,” Baron says. And this vision will definitely benefit from the existing ecosystem of companies working together to combine expertise in areas such as ICT, electronics and energy.

For instance, February 2016 saw the launch of a multidisciplinary collaboration between Philips, Cisco and Alliander on a smart, energy-saving lighting and public-WiFi scheme at the Hoekenrode shopping square next to the ArenA. Businesses that share the city’s ambition to solve societal and urban challenges are encouraged to open up shop in the Dutch capital. “Entrepreneurs should be open to participating in this collaborative network. As a city, we’re not looking for a quick win, so businesses with a long-term perspective that are willing to accept setbacks can really thrive here,” Baron explains.

In addition to a fully fl edged private-public ecosystem, new entrepreneurs can take their pick from more than 130,000 students in the city, many of whom are increasingly focused on metropolitan solutions. Students of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences recently built a self-steering garbage-collection boat that is not only cleaning up the city’s canals, but also proving there is enough talent in Amsterdam to power many innovative start-ups. In Baron’s own words, “If you are into creative, disruptive models, Amsterdam is the place to be.”