Last week I took part in a student conference called Euroweek. This conference is organized by Primenetworking which stands for “PRofessional Inter-university Management for Educational Networking” an international non-profit association that develops and promotes cross-cultural and interdisciplinary training, academic programmes and research and facilitates co-operation among universities and enterprises. Their main activity is Euroweek and it is held annually in one of the member universities. The subject of the Euroweek conference is different each year and it is always a subject that relates to fields such as Business Administration, Engineering, Information Technology, Tourism, Marketing or Management.
The reason I attended was that this year the subject was Smart Cities. The University of Girona, where I am currently doing a Master in Smart Cities, is a member of Primenetworking and therefore invited two students of the Master to participate in the conference.
The functioning of the conference is as follows: A set of projects are selected by the different universities. Groups from six students from tree countries (two students of each) are formed and assigned a project. Each group has to work online in the development of the project and, about a month before the meeting, they have to deliver it as a scientific paper. Then, during the Euroweek, students meet in person and have two days to prepare themselves to present the project to a jury (formed by professors from the member universities) and the rest of the students.
It is remarkable I think, that the subject for this year was Smart Cities. To me this is one more sign of the hype this model for urban development is living. One of the challenges for the deployment of smart cities is precisely the lack of expertise in this field, of professionals that are specifically prepared to deal with this new urban reality. Therefore I find really encouraging that universities are working in this subject, specially in an activity that is open to students from different backgrounds (engineering, finances, economy, ..) and different courses and ages.
The projects presented by the students were very varied. There were, among others, one about how to manage the data overflow in cities, one that reviewed technologies to use micro algae for everyday uses such as production of fuel, a smart parking system consisting on a underground elevator and one that developed a mobile app to make cities safer.
My project, which I did in collaboration with another master student from Girona, two first year finance students from Latvia and two first year students of MSc in Business from Italy, was called “Measuring the smartness of cities: approaches”. It reviewed different approaches to measuring “smartness” in cities in a very wide range that included also systems to measure only the quality of life or the sustainability of the city. We conducted a small survey among the students and academics attending the conference to probe the hypothesis that there is not a clear agreement on what a smart city is and what are the most important features it must have. As we expected the answer to these questions was very varied and although there were coincidences in some aspects, the survey showed the lack of general consensus on this subject.
From the presentations I was able to attend, there were two that specially caught my attention.
The first one was about circular economy. The project was called “Closing the loop: circular economy is smart for territories.” It was a review of projects were circular economy was applied to increase the efficiency of a process. I had heard about circular economy before but did not have a clear understanding of the issue.
After the presentation I grew curious to know more and I have started doing some research on the subject. The basics are: in a circular economy there is no waste, the remnants of a process must be the food for another process, be it another industrial process or to be biologically composted back to the earth. Modularity, versatility, and adaptivity are important features to obtain resilient systems. Energy has to come from renewable sources, as much as possible. One must think in systems: understand how each part of the system affects the others. And in the case of biological materials, think in cascades, to reuse the materials in different applications thought the chain. For more information check the Ellen MacArthur Foundation page about circular economy where they have endless information on the subject.
The second presentation I wanted to mention was about crowd sourcing and how this new financing method could be useful to get working some applications for smart cities that otherwise would not take off. At the beginning they asked the audience who had had, at some moment of their lives, a “brilliant idea” but could not have made it happen because they did not have funding to do so. Of course many people raised hands since the concept brilliant idea was said as kind of a joke, the typical crazy ideas everyone comes up every now and then… and so, the speakers said, this is why crowd funding was useful, to make possible projects that people with not enough money to fund them or credit score to ask for a loan. Their presentation focused on the existing crowd sourcing platforms and the functioning of these and ended with an invitation to imagine the possibilities this brought to smart cities.
And there are so many. There are many applications, inside the broad concept of smart cities, that can make the life of citizens better but need an investment to be made possible. Off the top of my head I can think of: green roof deployment to be used as community kitchen gardens, a mobile app that integrates all the transport possibilities for a specific city (once running the app can be economically maintained by advertising, but it needs an initial investment to be developed) or a bicycle sharing scheme. And this are just the first ideas I could think of that are precisely not at all innovative. But just think for a second of all the brilliant ideas people comes up sometimes. I believe that in some of this cases there could be many people interested in funding these ideas with small donations, be it only to have the idea implemented or with an additional benefit such as being the first to use it, or being a member of the system for free during the first year…
Hearing ideas from international students with different ages and backgrounds was very inspiring and it reaffirmed my belief that the smart cities model is more than a hype because it is a broad concept that can include many others and a flexible one that can be approximated from many points of view. However, as our “survey” showed, there is still a need of clarification of the concept and a more standard and inclusive definition.