Back in July 2015, I reflected on 9 years working in smart cities and where I thought the journey had got to. I talked about 4 phase in the evolution of smart cities. The first stage was where large global IT companies were trying to sell large scale solutions to cities that weren’t convinced they needed them. The second phase saw the tech companies offering to invest to get things started but cities still did not buy-in. The financial crisis of 2008 gave many countries austerity style budget challenges and many cities started to wonder if technology could help in this new environment. The fourth phase was looking into solving specific problems with technology and new business models. This phase saw the beginning of cities choosing to work with specialist start-ups offering tangible solutions, the flexibility and a business model to fit their needs. This was the point I made the jump to Enevo with the belief that companies like this would be key in this new transition.
In my previous blog, I discussed how the pressure to save money in delivering public services, could lead to less than optimal decisions being made (for all the right reasons) and gave an example of how if a city cut waste collections to “save costs”, it could cost them more in the long run as the uncollected waste will end up being dumped somewhere anyway. Not only that but as the world becomes more urbanised, our waste levels are rising, not falling. In this post I also alluded to the fact that a growing number of cities are looking specifically to technology solutions to help solve this seemingly unsolvable problem.
I could already see that regardless of challenges like the above, cities are accelerating their smart city initiatives. Being out in the marketplace talking to customers and visiting events I could see that the stance of cities has begun to shift from learning about what might be possible to asking how can we begin? Cities were now ready to discuss the problems they needed to solve, the things that they can’t ignore – the specific problems they need solutions for. Cities now want to know exactly how we can work to solve their problems and prove the technology works. They’re coming with questions like “What does this solution deliver for my community? Is there a clear business case right now or another promise of great things to come in years down the road?
If we pick one specific area, cities are also now thinking about the possibilities of a world without waste, that is a transition to a circular economy. One of the reasons for this change is the growing realisation that using landfills on a large scale is not going to be an option in the medium to longer term. However, to better manage a recycling economy we need visibility of the materials as we collect them. Data enables a step change in the economics and business model for recycling. Technology can measure and estimate future quantities ahead of time using big data analytics. Cities are figuring it out and acting on this today. We are already seeing amazing benefits being realised through this data.
There is more and more evidence that technology is re-inventing waste management and that cities are getting on board with this to unlock new ways of working and managing waste. The perfect storm that waste management faces, can only be solved and managed by technology in my view.
Increasingly though, it’s not just my view. Cities like Rotterdam are agreeing and moving quickly to test, trial and then scale out technology that can change the paradigm for managing waste. The switch from static collections to dynamic and optimised, demand based collections is proving to be a game changer in the cities that are implementing it. This is all driven by data and technologies that didn’t exist in this context a decade ago.
Cities like Rotterdam are seeing significant cost savings, more manageable waste management regardless of the fluctuations in the value of recyclable materials. Challenges still remain of course but pilot projects can quickly illustrate the potential gains. Scaling that out across an entire city might mean some further changes to the way we manage waste but solutions and paths forwards exist and provide precedents to the new ways of working we may ultimately need.
Rotterdam is a clear example of this journey. With the challenges they face today and in preparation for those of tomorrow they have realised that data is key. The trials they’ve undertaken have shown that it is possible to switch to a more efficient model and realise significant cost savings. This is how smart cities will be realised – in point solutions for problems that need solving.
Rotterdam is known as a city where people tend to act rather than talk, so when they looked at their challenges with waste management in a rapidly changing world, they saw that technology gave them an opportunity to move forwards and provide a better solution for their growing population.