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The Estonian vision for new models of smart city

Arguably, smart cities represent the meeting point between three of the main themes we will discuss the most in the near future – digital transformation, environmental issues, economic performance. As urbanization increases, living standards and sustainability progressively change from simple areas of discussion to calls for action. After raising awareness, we must now investigate all possible solutions that can have an impact on a changing world.

From social matters to the climate emergency, research into the development of adaptive models of smart cities can provide a vision for the future. For a future spanning beyond the next five or seven years, conceptualizing long-term plans to make urban agglomerations more inclusive, efficient, and attentive towards environmental issues. We saw how Tallinn already made a move towards the development of its own smart city model. Further projects in Tartu, and the ambitious Finest Twins plan for the Tallinn-Helsinki area, make Estonia one of the urban and social laboratories of Europe most committed to change.

Cross-border sustainability between Tallinn and Helsinki

It is not a mystery that Estonia and Finland share ties that go well beyond geography, history, and culture. Now, Tallinn and Helsinki are building a model of smart and sustainable twin cities to establish a paradigm for development also at a European level.

The project is already more than just an idea. Awarded a 32 million euros grant co-funded by the European Union and the Government of Estonia, Finest Twins will create a Centre of Excellence (CoE) for Smart and Sustainable Cities to deepen research and development into new models of municipal smart governance. The project was initiated by Ralf-Martin Soe, Research Fellow at the Department of Innovation Governance of TalTech. Aalto University (Finland), Forum Virium Helsinki, and the Estonian Ministry of Economic Affairs and Communications figure as partners.

Tallinn and Helsinki are commonly referred to as “Talsinki” not by chance. Finest Twins aims to create user-driven, “cross-border-by-default” smart city solutions directed at improving mobility, energy efficiency, and the built environment. Digital governance and urban analytics offer countless opportunities. Finest Twins relies on ICT to close gaps in regional cohesion and economic development through digitalisation, spill-over effects, and social entrepreneurship.

“Estonia has a very strong international reputation in the field of digital governance. With this project, we would like to add another layer to the story through smart city development”, says the initiator of the project, Ralf-Martin Soe.

Finest Twins will run until 2026, merging the Finnish expertise and resources for research with Estonia’s knowledge in implementing high-tech solutions. Cross-border smart city governance is possible. In this way, Tallinn and Helsinki are pursuing the unique chance of setting a virtuous example for the rest of Europe.

Energy efficiency in Tartu – from Soviet blocks of flats to smart city grids

Meanwhile, the city of Tartu is taking a major step towards increased energy efficiency. With the European project SmartEnCity, municipal agencies are contributing to renovate old Soviet blocks of flats (Khrushchyovka). The target is to decrease their current, high levels of energy consumption. The buildings will connect to the almost 100% renewables-powered city district heating system. Smart home solutions will monitor the indoor climate and consumption.

740 apartments in 19 buildings constitute, for now, the core of the project. Lauri Sokk, Head of Smart City Tartu, explains how needs brought up by citizens themselves drive such development.

“We avoid adopting innovative smart city technologies to look cool. In this case, we actually need them. We faced a really big problem – the centre of Tartu was filled with energy-consuming, costly, old Soviet buildings”, Sokk explains.

Citizens’ involvement in the improvement of living standards has always been very present in Tartu. The city is one of the first in the world to adopt participatory budgeting. “Citizens are the core and the most important thing for our smart city. That’s why most of the important decisions affecting them are always open to the public for discussion”, Sokk says. With the undergoing building renovations, Tartu is moving in the direction of cost efficiency and energy sustainability.

Though Estonia already has a competitive edge in moving towards smart city models, there’s still a lot to do. “Estonian public services are 99% digitalized, and this is great. However, most cities here are unable to provide some of these services at a municipal level. We must work on making local services as effective and predictive as state services are. Our vision for a smarter city is based on considering also such needs of citizens”, Sokk concludes.

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