The world is getting smarter. Or at least people have begun dubbing everything as such. For example, “Smart City” is a moniker that’s being adopted by places all over the world. And while there is a catchiness about the name, it’s also inherently vague. What’s the cut off from when a town goes from “dumb” to “smart?” And what actually constitutes a “smart solution“ as opposed to natural technological progression?
In Estonia, where so much of a citizen’s daily life can be completed online already, implementing such “smart city” solutions might seem redundant. Or perhaps it can be seen as accumulating another pricey gadget into the town’s ecosystem. Something which will inevitably be cast aside when something newer, shinier, and “smarter” comes along. So no shade to electric scooters, but the term can mean so much more than adopting an electric scooter scheme. But what is it really?
To get to the bottom of this, we sat down with two representatives from Tartu city government – project manager, Jaanus Tamm, and analyst, Kaspar Alev. Recently, thanks to becoming a Lighthouse City in the EU funded SmartENCity, there has been an upswing in the adoption of smart solutions all over Estonia’s second biggest city. So we met to discuss what this project meant for Tartu, and where the city plans to go once the project finishes in a year and half.
SmartEnCity + sharing digital solutions = 1 smart city
From retrofitting 17 of Tartu’s drab Soviet-era “khrushchyovkas” into energy-efficient and artistically striking “smartovkas,” to repurposing old EV batteries to partially recharge electric taxis with renewable energy, to LED street lights, many of SmartENCity’s solutions focuses on becoming more efficient and sustainable in the face of climate issues.
However, this isn’t necessarily new for Tartu. Because even though this project has been going on since 2016, “Tartu city government has actually been paperless for more than 10 years,” notes Jaanus. And while this project definitely gives it a push, Tartu has also been developing its own solutions at the same time. Most notably implementing smart traffic signs, as well as traffic counters at the entrances to the city.
Maybe not globally recognized (yet), but in Estonia at least, Tartu has always been known as a smart city. Boasting one of the oldest and best ranked universities in the Baltics, it has been home to scientists, intellectuals, noted professors, and students from every faculty for the past 400 years. This has developed into a mutually beneficial relationship for the university and the city government. Both of whom are eager to cooperate with one other – sharing data sets, resources, and information. For example, cooperating on and learning from Tartu’s recently implemented ARCgis data management system.
And it is perhaps this cooperation between sectors and different stakeholders that really makes a city smart. As Jaanus explains, “It’s about openness and readiness for change.” As well as an ability to “interact and talk,” adds Kaspar. Not only with the citizens and local institutions, but with cities around the world.
To that, “Tartu regularly cooperates with a Smart city network around Estonia – to meet and talk about issues and share experiences.” They also meet with other international city governments. Something which is extremely important as Kaspar points out, because, “things we saw 10 years ago and we thought of as ‘space technology’ that would take 30 years or more to implement, we were able to implement in 5-6 years. All because of solving problems together and learning and sharing.”
The future of Tartu’s smartness
Although the funding for SmartENCity will end next year, that doesn’t mean that the solutions will stop in Tartu. Jaanus and Kaspar let us in on the plans to make Tartu’s city government 95% carbon free in the next year. Using wood chips for district heating, biogas in public transportation, and renewable electricity for the need of administrative buildings and the electric bike system that was implemented in the middle of last year.
Such changes might actually be what lies at the heart of a smart city. Because it’s not just about improving the lives of its residents now, but it’s about setting a foundation for the future. Especially because new gadgets and shiny IT toys tend to be forgotten and taken for granted with lightning speed. Kaspar touches upon this aspect, when he notes,
“Those who talk about smart cities, they say that ‘they are for the people, and the interaction, and the people are in the centre.’ And it’s all very nice, but then OK ‘now we’ll go off into IT.’ Suddenly, everyone forgets about the people and then focuses on the ‘cool IT’ stuff.”
For a city to be truly smart it has to think about how these solutions will actually benefit residents for years to come. Which means it often requires the (non-glamorous) job of data analysis and number crunching, putting this into pilot projects, and seeing how it affects the most important part of any city, its people and those who visit. Jaanus explains this succinctly when he says it’s about a “mingling of cold calculated data with that of real-life interactions with the citizens.”
No matter how they get there, in the end, Jaanus concludes with his hope that both its residents and people around the world come to recognise Tartu as “innovative, open minded, scientific, and smart. A smart city.”
Some of the smart solutions implemented in Tartu:
Tartu retrofitting package – turning “khrushchyovkas” into smartovkas – energy efficient buildings meant to inspire its residents and the town.
Public bike sharing system – funded by the city and partially by the ERDF and EC, introduces 65 electric bike stations throughout Tartu.
LED lights with smart controllers – smart street light control system, including a number of detectors and sensors will be installed in more than 300 new LED street lights in Tartu.
Gas buses in the whole city – 60 brand new biogas buses to serve the public transportation network, a step towards making public transportation 100% based on biogas.
Reusing old EV batteries – in a way that partially recharge a fleet of electric taxis.
District cooling system that uses residual heat – a network similar to District Heating, but it provides cooling to non-residential buildings in Tartu. There are two plants, one cooling the city center buildings and using the river as means for cooling.The other plant is situated on the southern border and provides cooling for Lõunakeskus. The advantage of district cooling is higher efficiency compared to on site cooling devices, no noise, and elimination of heat islands in the city.
Read also about smart city solutions of Estonian capital Tallinn.
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