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By Kevin Borras, Editor-in-chief of Thinking Cities and Thinking Highways

For as long as anyone can remember there’s been a degree of healthy competition between the U.S. and Europe, particularly with the UK, in terms of “who’s best” or “who’s most advanced.” Name a subject and you can start a discussion about which side of the Atlantic is doing it better — and it’s entirely unheard of that facts and actual experiences aren’t even remotely part of the equation.

Let’s take two examples: a neighbour of mine recently bought a Chrysler 300C. He’d barely parked it and clambered his way out of the driver’s door when he was descended upon by the menfolk of the three adjoining houses. “Nice colour,” said one, “and it’s alright for going in a straight line…” I knew, and Mr. 300C knew, what was coming next. “But it’s American, isn’t it? They don’t really do corners.” It transpired after a light grilling that this specific neighbour had not a) ever driven an American car, b) ever driven in the U.S., nor c) ever been to the U.S. But his point was clear (he drives an Audi): European cars are better than American cars. “We” (oh the irony) do it better.

Now take an experience I had in Florida last year. I had eaten a very good meal and complimented the waiter on the excellence of the food.

Noticing my accent, the waiter asked me where I was from. “Oh, no wonder you liked the food here,” he retorted. “I hear the food in England is terrible.” You can guess the rest. He had never been to the UK and other than “fish n’ chips” couldn’t name one “typically English” meal. His point was also clear. “Our” food is better than yours. I didn’t bother telling him about the array of Michelin-starred restaurants we have on our shores, but his assumption was no worse than my neighbour’s about American cars. We think that we do things better, whoever we are.

Solving The Puzzle

This, however, is not what this article is setting out to do. There are numerous cities of all sizes, populations, importance, and topography all across Europe that are in the midst of implementing an equally wide variety of smart city projects and programs. All of them are doing so with the aim of solving a problem with technology. Many of the problems are very similar (congestion, for example) and many of the solutions are very similar, but how the cities are going about implementing those solutions is where the interest lies. Some are implementing cutting-edge technological solutions; some are making “smart investments” and others are utilising the benefits of participating in European Commission research projects.

One good example of the latter approach is the city of Graz in Austria. Two main challenges that Graz, where the downtown area is a UNESCO World Heritage center, currently faces are air pollution and road congestion. The city is located in a topographic basin, meaning that its further development can extend towards the South along the Mur River or, preferably, happen through a substantial qualitative densification of the building plan. This basin situation does not only affect land use: the surrounding mountains imprison the particles emitted by the various industries based in the urban area of Graz, domestic heating, and the combustion engines in transit on the roads.

However, the mobility share of private cars has remained stagnant over the last few years, mostly because more people are moving to the outskirts of the city, where public transport service is not as readily available as it is in the center. The city administration is currently in a “reflection phase” about policies and tools with the aim of drastically reducing air emissions.

But individual mobility is not the only cause for Graz’s congestion and pollution. “As with every other city it needs a constant flow of vehicles to assure its logistical functions: waste collection, street cleaning, and deliveries of all kinds: goods delivered to shops, food, and private orders,” says Christian Nußmüller, Head of the EU-Unit of the City of Graz. “This constant circulation makes a few questions rise: is the current use of trucks and minivans efficient? How could we avoid peaks of delivery vehicles blocking entire areas, such as the central pedestrian zone at certain hours?”

Enter the trans-European NOVELOG Project that aims to address these questions by enabling better knowledge and understanding of urban freight distribution and service trips in order for cities to implement effective and sustainable policies and measures and facilitate stakeholder collaboration for sustainable city logistics. Over the last three years, the project has focused on strengthening the capacity of local authorities and stakeholders regarding the elaboration and implementation of sustainable urban mobility policies. In the pilot cities, test measures were deployed at a small scale, while case study cities assessed ongoing measures. All the urban freight transport measures considered by the projects pertain to two main cluster categories: administrative and regulatory schemes and incentives, and cooperative logistics.

The NOVELOG project has paved the way for sustainable city logistics in Graz. The cooperation between cities across Europe has raised awareness among the administration of the City of Graz and its partners about a topic that affects virtually every city in the developed world. The case studies were essential in bringing forward elements that were replicable in Graz. The city has already planned the implementation of a smart logistics locker system in its new Smart City district and discussions have started with the relevant partners about the development and implementation of a logistics micro-hub next to the city center.

Procure For All Ills

Another way in which cities are tackling implementation issues, where projects are more than merely two years of worthy but ultimately fruitless research, is through the process of smart procurement. Smart city procurement expert David Bonn says that it all boils down to smart thinking, above and beyond smart- anything else.

“In today’s Smart City environment, many clients recognize that they can’t procure in the way they have in the past and that they need the help of the suppliers to help formulate their ideas as to what is possible. Frequently this is referred to as going on the ‘Smart City journey’ together. You will see and hear many clients talking about ‘collaborative,’ ‘partnership,’ ‘innovation-driven,’ ‘risk-sharing’ approaches to delivering contracts. All of these are sensible approaches and ones generally welcomed by suppliers and can deliver very successful outcomes. So why is there reservation in adopting them much more widely? A simple answer — Terms & Conditions!”

Talking about his experiences in Europe and more recently in Australia, Bonn stresses that this is an approach that could, and in fact should, be adopted globally.

“Innovation is a key element in the successful delivery of Smart City solutions and is the development or delivery of what is a new or significantly improved product, process, or service. Innovation can be linked to performance and growth through improvements in efficiency, productivity, quality, faster response times, and so on. Innovation can also involve both the creation of entirely new knowledge, as well as the diffusion of existing knowledge. Innovative solutions are therefore new and better solutions to meet the evolved needs of today’s environment. In public procurement,” he concludes, “seeking innovative solutions can be the seeking of a new product, process, or service or an improved approach to the delivery of the service. In essence, it’s about purchasing new, better, and more efficient solutions in a new way — and therein lies the challenge.”

A Change For The Good(s)

A city that is facing increasing levels of congestion and, therefore pollution, is Barcelona. The city authorities took on board the damning facts and figures that showed that urban logistics was one of the main causes of the doubly damaging problems and decided upon a novel approach — microdistribution for the onerous last-mile deliveries. The solution uses electric cargo bikes as they are widely recognised as being the more suitable vehicle for small shipments as they improve delivery operations in pedestrian areas where conventional vehicles have limited access.

The microdistribution concept was introduced in the city in three phases. The first phase is referred to as the subsidy approach and saw a collaboration between the Municipality and the cargo-bike start-up company vanAPEDAL. The pilot promoted a shared cargo-bike service. This achieved some success in breaking the logistics chain, with more than half a dozen shippers taking part. It enabled vanAPEDAL to establish some new exclusive cargo-bike services, and it confirmed this latter service as the one that shipper companies prefer.

A second phase of microdistribution development saw the Municipality working within the framework of the aforementioned NOVELOG project which had as its primary objective the development of tools to assist cities in the process of implementing measures to reduce the impact of the last mile deliveries and to provide guidance. A pilot test was carried out in this project, where the idea was to reduce the costs that Last-Mile Cargo-trike operators (LMO) face without using a subsidy to intervene in the market. Thus, the Municipality cedes (in a concession model) off-street space so that the Last Mile Operator avoids paying the rental of the space and the overnight parking of the cargo-bikes. In exchange, the LMO provides data to the Municipality and assumes the compromise to be a neutral operator: this means working with any carrier requesting their services. The data and knowledge generated are then used by the city to improve its services and possibly extending the model to other areas.

Barcelona has been quite honest in reporting that the scheme hasn’t been as universally successful as it had originally hoped, due in part to the location of the distribution platforms, but this is a prime example of a city that is prepared to think outside of the traditional box and get its hands dirty, as it were.

The same with Graz — a non-traditional approach to solving a traditional problem is always going to have a chance of coming off. Cities that naturally think “no one has ever done it this way before and there must be a good reason for that” are the ones that will, more than likely, never solve their problems and indeed may just add to them. David Bonn’s plea for smart thinking in terms of procurement is also advice to be heeded — if it works in Europe then there’s no conventional thinking to suggest that it won’t work in Tennessee or Oregon.

To read more articles from the Summer 2018 edition of #talkITS, subscribe online here

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