Smart Cities are hot. This week a large delegation of Dutch civil servants and entrepreneurs is in Barcelona for the world’s largest congress on this subject. Today there were 466 participants from 24 countries at the International Smart City Business Forum which was organized by The Netherlands and by the Scandinavian countries.

In a recent podcast made by Innovation Origins for Dutch Design Week, director Rob Adams of the Eindhoven-based Six Fingers agency said that he despised the term ‘Smart Cities.’ “Because when we talk about Smart Cities, it’s just all about technology,” Adams said. “And people don’t feel happier as a result of lots of technology. It’s really a matter of solving real problems in people’s lives.”

Ecosystems, not ego-systems

While Adams was absent, there was reason enough to listen more critically to the statements made by the speakers at the business forum. For instance, to Frans Vermast, Ambassador of Amsterdam Smart Cities and a world authority in this field. “Cities are ecosystems and not ego-systems” is one of his slogans. In his presentation at the congress he discussed a variety of successful and less successful experiments with ‘smart technology’.

Vermast is not afraid of sharing failures either. “This is the only way we will be able to share lessons learned and prevent other cities from making the same mistakes.”

Zeynep Sarilar, chairperson at Itea, the Eindhoven-based European innovation program for the software industry, is similarly down-to-earth. “We need innovative solutions that are driven by real problems. That is something you will only find out if you talk to people.” Sarilar advocates more cooperation between scientists and companies that develop technologies of this kind. She talks about global solutions which provide a better future for our children.

No Big Tech

Today’s speakers are certainly not the representatives from Big Tech. Instead, they work for municipalities, universities or more idealistic companies that are committed to sustainable development. There is a panel discussion on the question of who should be the owner of your data. This is topical, as cities are storing more and more data. Cooperation between The Netherlands and Scandinavian countries, as well as between The Netherlands and the US, is also high on the agenda.

“The important thing is that we all should try to find solutions for the future,” says Magnus Agerström, managing director of Cleantech Scandinavia, one of the organizers. “And there’s no point in all of us trying to find out everything. One country may be good at one thing and another may be good at something else. If we work together more closely, we will be able to accomplish global innovations.”

Smart Cities are where targets are brought together

Merei Wagenaar, deputy director of international entrepreneurship at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, says things with a more business-like tone. “Our goal is to help Dutch companies do business abroad. We see it as a challenge that companies actually achieve the United Nations’ sustainable development targets. Many of these targets are brought together in Smart Cities. That’s why we think we should be here with lots of Dutch companies. That way, we can discuss what solutions are needed which will help municipalities achieve their targets. Not just in the Netherlands, but all over the world.”

The Dutch ambassador to Spain, Jan Versteeg, sums it up succinctly in a closing statement. “Over the next 30 years, more than 2.5 billion city dwellers will be added worldwide. So the world will look a bit more like The Netherlands. However, there will also be more problems like air pollution. What we need are innovative solutions in order to deal with these challenges.”

Not just with state funding

Would Rob Adams from Six Fingers have been satisfied with the presentations? In contrast to what he was concerned about, it was not solely about technology. Above all, it was about solving real problems for real people. Yet in the real world, problems also need to be financed. And this is unlikely to be possible with state funding alone. Data companies are also seeing their market grow due to the many interesting smart city projects that will emerge over the coming years.

That’s why deputy mayor Cathalijne Dortmans promised that Brainport Smart City District (the smartest district in the Netherlands, which is being built within her municipal borders) will be given a solid ethical committee. “And we expect and hope that this will keep us up to speed. It should only be the citizens themselves who decide what happens to their data.”