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Europe’s smartest cities: striking the right balance between sustainability and innovation

In the era of Industry 4.0, smart cities are characterized by advanced, next-generation technologies which are incorporated into a given city or area’s infrastructure to better the lives of the respective city’s citizens. Through the wider adoption of emerging technologies such as 5G, artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning (ML), big data analytics, the Internet of Things (IoT) and Augmented/Virtual reality (AR/VR), among others, smart cities are no longer a thing of the future.

The fundamental building blocks of a smart city are said to include: long-term flexible planning, investing in the city’s future, ensuring that plans are turned into reality, building trust and collaborating on smart city projects (public-private partnerships).

In the past, urban development took place organically; however, this is no longer the best approach. Governments across the world have come to terms with this notion and have seen that our future cities need to be planned more rigorously, taking into account every aspect of the city’s infrastructure and to ensure that sustainability aims are met, along with livability and prosperity.

The world’s population in urban areas is estimated to grow at around 1.4 million people per week. The UN forecasted that by 2050, the majority of the world’s population will live in urban areas. This rapid urbanization is why we will very likely continue to see more smart cities being built to cater to a more advanced and interconnected way of life driven by data.

The International Data Corporation (IDC) estimated that European countries would spend up to $19 billion on smart city investment in 2018 and that the Singapore-based social innovation consultancy, Eden Strategy Institute, would give European cities more prominent smart city rankings.


Back in 2015, the French capital launched its ‘Smart and Sustainable Paris’ initiative which included Smart 2050 by Vincent Callebaut, the architect. This architectural project aimed to integrate smart energy production techniques into high-rise buildings in an effort to decrease the energy demand and encourage residents to approach their lives in a more eco-friendly manner.

This meant that, through the use of nature and smart technology, each building would have its own unique energy-producing system. An example of this type of architecture includes adding ducts and chimneys for heat captivation and to increase the efficiency of cooling mechanisms.

In addition to this, in the public areas surrounding the smart buildings, the city plans to implement green parks and “phylolights”, a smart turbine-lamp system whereby lighting is supplied by energy that is produced via turbines to illuminate the areas.

Also, mixed-use buildings are expected to be built in the city on a much larger scale to ensure that residential areas are mixed in with retail and co-working spaces to reduce commuting times and costs and to also lower transport emissions in the long run.

The city has been very ambitious with its plans to create a sustainable utopia. The city developed a smart transformation network which included expansive electric vehicle sharing via a program called Autolib.


London, one of the most prominent capitals in the world and certainly one of Europe’s top smart cities, has been deemed an open data pioneer and digital business supporter.

The English capital’s population is expected to reach 10 million by 2030 which would inherently put a great deal of pressure on their transport networks, energy and healthcare systems as well as increase pollution. In order to tackle these issues, smart urban planning had to be initiated.

Smart London 2.0 smart city strategy was launched back in 2016 by Sadiq Khan, Mayor of London, in an effort to further digital inclusion initiatives. Later in 2019, Smart IoT initiative was launched by The City of London Corporation to deploy IoT-powered street lighting across the entire city.

In 2018, the London mayor’s first-ever chief digital officer, Theo Blackwell set out his plans to further London’s smart city development and to effectively digitize the city.

“We define a smart city as something that harnesses the power of data from public and private sources for the benefit of Londoners and people who work and visit here," he explained. "We see that as enabling us to seize the opportunities of a city that's growing and dealing with its challenges as well,” said Blackwell.

He added, "That means using data to find solutions and mobilizing the different bits of brain centers of London together is how we envision a smarter London – and fundamental to that, which is a key part of my role, is doing that collectively.

Some initiatives include: Sadiq Khan’s civic innovation challenge to further innovative startups, an advanced transport system to reduce traffic congestion problems and London Datastore which provides citizens with access to over 700 city information databases.


The Finnish capital has been relentless in focusing its efforts primarily on the needs of its citizens. The country has an open government with transparent policies and shares its learning in urban development with five other cities in Finland via ‘The Six City Strategy’ open innovation platform.

Helsinki has established Kalasatama, a district which is characterized by smart innovation. The aim is to save citizens one hour of commute time per day through better and smarter traffic management systems and services, with around 25 more projects on the way.

The city is consistently rated and deemed one of the most livable European cities. According to the Mayor of Helsinki, Jan Vapaavuori, it all essentially boils down to three key pillars: transparency, education and diminishing bureaucracy.

In reference to education, Vapaavuori stated, “The most important element of a smart city is smart people. And as we know, we have been ranked as having the best schools in the world. And I think that that is the basis for an innovative society.”

Adding that, “When we notice that we have some districts or some suburbs in the city of Helsinki which are lagging behind, we actually follow a principle of so-called positive discrimination. We actually give extra money for those schools which are located in less favorable conditions.”

Helsinki is a hot spot for sustainable and innovation-driven startups, was an early adopted of BIM, has a strong base of IT talent, has piloted various 5G projects and is absolutely committed to furthering its open data aims.


Amsterdam was one of the first cities in Europe to launch a smart city program back in 2009 in order to improve the environment, economy, standard of living, mobility and the government.

The Dutch capital is indeed a pioneer in open sourcing data. In 2012, the city launched an open database which united 12,000 datasets from the city’s 32 districts. The data included in this initiative is on land value, healthcare, traffic, education and addresses, among others.

The city heavily invested in its technology and infrastructure. In fact, the city is the second biggest internet exchange point on the globe, with eleven out of fifteen transatlantic data cables passing through to connect to it.

In terms of smart street lighting, the port of Amsterdam was equipped with dimmable LED lights. These light which illuminate paths for bikers are generated by solar and wind energy. What is more is that bikers could also use an app to increase the lighting in their way which would then be automatically dimmed once they pass the area. This is a huge leap in energy saving.

When it comes to transport, Amsterdam is already well-renowned for cycling as a means of transportation. However, apart from this, there has also been an increase in the uptake of electric cars and car sharing.

Among other things, the city also encourages its citizens to participate in innovations aimed at improving city life for residents. The ‘Smart citizens lab’ was set up to educate citizens on how they could measure air quality and water conditions on their own in an effort to be more aware of their responsibility in terms of their impact on the environment and pollution levels. Another citizen-centric initiative was to take measures to become a more age-friendly city which was done through interviewing the city’s elderly citizens to better understand their needs.

A recent project, Marineterrein Amsterdam Living Lab (MALL), was set up to provide citizens with a place within which they could develop and test their technologies and projects to further sustainable living.


The German capital’s smart city strategy focused on fostering a high standard of living by emphasizing the importance of culture and creativity.

The Smart City Berlin Strategy was announced by the Berlin Senate back in 2015. The initiative set out a variety of objectives pertaining to effectively utilizing the city’s resources, climate neutrality and furthering the trialing of new innovative applications.

Berlin’s city infrastructure has been ranked as one of the best in the world. The energy usage of the house and buildings in the city have been tracked for almost two whole decades. Energy consumption levels have decreased from 150 kWh to 80 kWh per square meter per year. In addition to this, the energy consumption of the city’s residential buildings was found to be below the 30-city average. In fact, the city has been on this journey since 2000 when the city’s Senate’s Department of Administration for Urban Development launched the ‘Berlin Solar Campaign’.

Taking into account the city’s large population, the need for an efficient transport network is essential. In an effort to improve their transport networks and drive smarter mobility choices, Berlin launched the