For many visitors Amsterdam attractive because of its world-class museums, murky coffeeshops, notorious Red Lights district and a unique blend of heritage and modern architecture. However, Amsterdam is also well-known for its centuries-long tradition of innovation in urban design and planning. Historical challenges left city planners no other choice.
Written by: Vladimir Bataev, Smart Cities & Innovation Funding Expert,Zaz Ventures
The XVII century inner city canal ring was meticulously planned with an eye on the tempo of population growth and increasing load on transport channels, with the attention to detail unheard of during that period. In early XX century Amsterdam responded to increasing flow of factory workers from villages to the city by launching the first social housing program. This program became a de-facto standard for many other cities in the world to emulate.
Early 2000s posed new challenging questions: How to keep the city comfortable and livable, despite of growing population and increased attractiveness of Amsterdam as a tourist destination? Existing development models (e.g. with overreliance on cars) were already showing limitations, and the city had to become much smarter in the way it operated. Hard work and inventiveness were always in the DNA of Amsterdammers, so they did not hesitate long. Within a decade each city area hosted a multitude of living labs, where citizens, individually or in groups, started experimenting with smart urban solutions and testing new technology.
For example, Hugo Niessing, who just like many Amsterdammers lives on a canal in a refurbished barge (a very traditional and sought-after way of housing). Solar panels that he installed on the roof of the barge produce enough energy to cover most of his family’s household needs. However, he did not stop there — he uses the surplus of electricity to charge the battery of his leisure electric boat, and in the evenings he disconnects from the city grid and powers his house only from the battery.
In the North of the city, in the area of old shipyards, architects from the bureau Dus assembled a large 3D printer and started printing a fully-fledged house, similar to one of the canal houses in the Unesco heritage area in the middle of the city. The architects are looking at the ways to make construction more mobile and cheaper in the future. In a similar vein, MX3D plans to 3D print a steel bridge over one of the canals in the city, testing their unique technology.
The digital mile spans from Amsterdam central train station to the Maritime museum next to the Eastern docks. There are beacons installed next to each notable building or ship, and similar to the lighthouses of the past they show the way to the tourists, broadcasting navigation signals to their smartphones. Moreover, beacons send details and trivia about the sights, all in the native language of the tourist.
Circular economy — the economic model that aims to minimise waste, emissions and other negative externalities, and to reuse and refurbish everything else — has become a prime research subject in Amsterdam. For example, a group of enthusiasts leased an abandoned plot of land from the city and founded De Ceuvel — the most famous European circular economy lab. Here refurbished office boats sail the sea of carefully selected plants that the purify contaminated soil, water is filtered and almost all waste is recycled. De Ceuvel tests on small scale solutions that could later be replicated in other parts of the city.
Amsterdam built a well-functioning ecosystem around such projects and labs to further develop promising urban innovations. Ger Baron, the chief technical officer of Amsterdam (yes, there is such a title) defines responsibilities of his team in very clear terms: run experiments, while collaborating with as many parties as possible, and based on the results decide what the city should invest into.
The city has launched the Amsterdam Smart City platform, and has experts from Amsterdam Economic Board available to help drive promising projects further. De Waag Society innovates at the intersection of art, new media and technology. Amsterdam Institute for Advanced Metropolitan Solutions runs fundamental research and educational programs. Business incubators like Rockstart have dedicated programs for startups busy with smart urban solutions. Even Amsterdam Arena, the world-class stadium, has a clear smart urban strategy.
Unsurprisingly, in early 2010s Amsterdam was frequently mentioned as a top 10 innovative city in various ratings. In 2016 the European Commission named it the European capital of innovation, stressing the successfully harmonized approach to four dimensions of urban life: city management, economics, citizen involvement & participation and livability.
Amsterdam disseminates a lot of knowledge that stems out of its experience. The city hosts the annual Smart City Event. There are daily lectures, debates and educational programs in Pakhuis de Zwijger — a monumental former warehouse. The breadth of subjects is impressive: smart city approaches, digital fashion, ethical aspects of using self-driving cars, lessons learned from Delhi and Mumbai, etc.
Marineterrein — the former naval base and closed territory in the middle of the city — recently opened its gates for startups and innovative SMEs, makers laboratories. The area also hosts the Amsterdam Smart City Experience Lab where the best of local projects are showcased: capsule buildings, vertical farms, streets with no parked cars, and many others.