Amsterdam as Smart City

Amsterdam as Smart City

1. Introduction

Over the last few years, the term ‘smart city’ is gaining wider currency in governments, academia and industry. Although there is still a lack of consensus about its scope, it generally refers to the use of technology to make the cities more efficient and sustainable. The term appeared in the 1990s (Alawadhi et al., 2012) and was adopted during the 2000s by technology companies (IBM, Cisco or Siemens, among many others) to market their products. Several critiques to this marketing perspective appeared soon, questioning if the new technology-led urban utopia (Townsend, 2013) had in fact any similarity with the real urban systems (Holland, 2008).

There is no doubt that the mix between ICT and traditional infrastructures (Batty et al., 2012) is is profoundly changing the way cities work. This new city has been defined with a myriad of adjectives: digital, ubiquitous, computational, informational, wired and so on. However, this terminology often refers to a transformation process rather to the technology as panacea, as the corporate discourse does. Many authors point out that the ‘smartness’ of a city comes from a ‘bottom up’ approach; initiated by citizens and social networks, from it citizens and social networks (Greenfield, 2012; de Lange and de Waal, 2012). In order for a city to be ‘smart’, it must take into account (Hoornweg, 2011). Therefore, the smart city needs citizen participation, empowered communities and urban technologies serving society (Harvey, 2012).

Moreover, the smart city also takes into account the studies relative to any city science: urban governance, open data, smart communities, art and creativity, smart health, start-ups and digital business, open data, big data, access to technologies, citizen participation and so on. Also, the smart city appears usually tied to sustainability and aims to tackle climate change, decrease the ecological footprint and maximise efficiency in urban metabolism and town planning (Graham and Marvin, 2001).

For purposes of evaluation and simplification, in this paper 6 main characteristics of the smart cities are proposed, based on the functions defined by Batty et al. (2012) and the work of European Smart City Project (Vienna University of Technology).


Fig. 1: A Typology of Smart City Functions 
Source: Batty et al. (2012)


Fig. 2: The smart city model
Source: Department of Spatial Planning of Vienna University of Technology (2015)


The case study section, based in Amsterdam (the Netherlands), will evaluate the city through these 6 smart city features in order to evaluate whether they are balanced, sufficiently developed and effective – rather than marketed, incomplete or not applicable projects. The methodology will be literature-based, exploring the existing smart projects, papers and reports.

2. Amsterdam

Amsterdam is a city with 811,000 inhabitants (2014) in the city limits, 1.1 million in the urban area and 1.6 million its greater metropolitan area. Capital of the Netherlands, Amsterdam is simultaneously a land and a municipality, with a one-tier consolidated government model (a City Districts Department responsible for the 7 districts).

Fig 3. Amsterdam City Council/Municipality structure.
Source: Own elaboration from Amsterdam Municipality website.


Amsterdam is a renowned city when it comes to digital, innovative projects. For example, The Digital City (De Digitale Stad, DDS) started in 1994 offering free internet service. This project was developed by the cultural centre De Balie and the ISP Hack-Tic but had a strong bottom up orientation, constituting the first online community in the Netherlands. During the 1990s-2000s, several projects ICT-related were implemented, often from the government in a top down fashion but aiming to promote citizen participation and IT skills – as the Citizen Link project (Burger-link) (de Lange and de Waal, 2012).

Regarding sustainable development, Amsterdam “held up as the example of how to retrofit a city to improve living and economic conditions and reduce carbon emissions” (Kirby, 2013 cited Hollands 2015).

Amstedam’s reputation for promoting sustainable transports (as cycling and walking) is notorious. It is considered the biking capital of the world, with about 800,000 bicycles, 500 km of bike lanes and 48% of the modal split.


2.1 Amsterdam Smart City

The Municipality Council centres its smart city strategy in one organism: the Amsterdam Smart City (ASC) office, active since 2009 and founded by the Municipality itself and strategic partners. ASC promotes a ‘smart’ agenda with a “partnership between companies, governments, knowledge institutions and the people of Amsterdam”.



Fig. 4: Structure and methodology of Amsterdam Smart City initiative.
Source: Amsterdam Smart City website.

IASC has partnered with technology companies such as IBM, HP, Mitsubishi, Philips, KPN, or Cisco, among others. After 7 years running, the partnership has about 100 partners, a fact that denotes maturity of the project. The partners can collaborate on both projects or networking - events, awards, etc. 

Approximately 90 projects fall into 8 categories; 5 are ‘smart’ categories: mobility, living, society, areas and economy, and the other 2 categories are for data and city infrastructure/metabolism. A last category aims to test new technologies in actual urban environments: the Living Labs.


Fig. 5: Projects categories of Amsterdam Smart City initiative.
Source: Amsterdam Smart City website.

ASC also organises an annual event, the ‘Smart Cities Event’, about smart cities focused on showcasing smart projects from all over the world and allowing visits to ongoing initiatives in Amsterdam. ASC also holds Appsterdam, a hackathon for apps, addressing Smart Energy, Smart Mobility and Smart Stadium.

ASC have also the Living Labs projects. 3 testing areas, Nieuw-West, Zuidoost and IJburg are used to develop pilot projects and new products.


Is Amsterdam Smart City effective?

In a nutshell, ASC is quite effective. Having a central and powerful office for smart cities activities is a useful tool in pursuing the smart city vision (Manville et al., 2014). The office has attracted different kinds of stakeholders and investors. ASC regularly provides funding for small, bottom up projects and, at the same time, partners with heterogeneous stakeholders to develop large, complex initiatives.


2.2 Bottom up projects

The people of Amsterdam are also active in exploring smart city approaches through bottom up projects; forming a powerful grassroots organization to bring the benefits of ICT to urban life. Projects such as Amsterdam Opent allows the city to make proposals and submit ideas that can be crowdfunded by the administration. Idee Voor Je Burt (Ideas for the neighbourhood) and Verbeterdebuurt (Improve the neighbourhood) are two projects allowing to community to give new ideas to improve their neighbourhood. They are similar to their English predecessor, Fixmystreet, but they also include ‘traditional’ citizen participation – connecting online and offline activities. These kind of projects conveys a great feeling of belonginess.

Projects that are entirely bottom up are usually local. One example, Face Your World, consist in a 3D visualisation tool called the Interactor for the children to ‘engineer’ their surroundings, combining and visualising existing elements in their neighbourhoods. The children can also interact with other users, negotiating the changes they want to see in the public space. Secondary school students participated in the Staalman Park urban regeneration, a 13,500m2 park in Slotervaart, a deprived district. The final plan was presented to the council and was accepted with only minor modifications. The park was opened on July 2011.


Fig. 6: Staalman Park regenerated by the community of Slotervaart district through the project ‘Face your World’.
Source: Face Your World.


2.3 Urban innovation

Amsterdam works hard to attract high-skilled talent from all over the world, boost the existing start-up ecosystem and promote the incorporation of big technology companies. The Municipality has a specific policy framework, strongly influenced by the European policies based in research, innovation, employment and the green economy. This framework is based on four pillars: Amsterdam's position as a business hub, knowledge development and innovation, sustainable urban development and active citizenship and participation.

Also, the Municipality has impulse and actively backs up the programmes StartupDelta and StartupAmsterdam.


2.4 Open Data

Although open data is a relatively new and is still in its infancy (Kitchin, 2014), Amsterdam Municipality Council started its own data portal in 2012, which had international recognition soon – it was awarded by the Smart City Expo held in Barcelona in 2012, in the category of transport and mobility. 

Open data often presents some contradictions. It is positive for the purposes of transparency and accountability, but only a small part of the population is data literate. In research conducted by The Guardian (2013), 72% of the interviewed understood that open data would be very important but 78% did not know about what their benefits would be. 

Amsterdam Municipality Council understands, in this context, that open data is not only for the population, but it opens a myriad of possibilities for SMEs, investors and other business catalysers and allows hackers, coders and civil associations to develop their own tools for the citizens’ benefit.

The open data initiative have evolved in other formats, such as the Open Geo Data Portal, the Rijksmuseum API (which enables the access to the museum collection via API), Openspending (a platform allowing citizens to check government spending) and many other projects through the Amsterdam Smart City office, such as the Appsterdam (App contest). Also, the Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek (Central Statistics Office) provides data related to the census, income, etc.

The Open Data Programme, coordinated by the non-profit foundation Amsterdam Economic Board, had a €1.5 M budget in 2013 and increased the number of datasets from 28 to more than 350. A system of partnerships between industry, universities and governments allows the strategic stakeholders to create new apps and business directly related to Amsterdam urban data.


2.5 Smart grids

Amsterdam has been actively supporting the switching to smart grids since 2009, when the council partnered with the operator Alliander in order to gradually install smart meters and upgrade the network to a smart grid.
The Municipality also seeks for energy improvements in the districts through the European project ‘City-zen’, consisting in a plethora of smart subprojects addressing subjects such as energy savings by gaming, house renovation, testing areas and so on.


2.6 Mobility

Amsterdam’s strategy regarding smart mobility is starting with relatively small projects like the inner city delivery (such as Cargohooper and Foodlogica) or the smart traffic management (Trafficlink). However, the transport planning is not fully integrating smart technologies.


3. Conclusions

One of the main strengths of Amsterdam is its own strong vision to become a smart city. The powerful Amsterdam Smart City office centralises many of the existing smart projects and maintains a healthy balance between public and private initiatives. The collaborations with other institutions such as De Waag (Institute for Art, Science and Technology) and Hogeschool van Amsterdam (Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences) give the ASC strong credibility and flexibility. In fact, the number of projects in which the ASC is involved, makes Amsterdam one of the smart capitals of Europe (See Fig. 7).



Fig. 7: Smart city initiatives in Europe.
Source: Mapping Smart Cities in the EU. Manville et al., under request of European Union (2014)


However, the ASC office may become victim of its own success. Having the smart cities affairs concentrated in one organism could neglect the permeability of smart thinking in other urban areas such as governance, transport planning or public health - limiting the smart city activities to single, small and sometimes unlinked projects.

In spite of smart cities being a relatively new concept, ICT should be gradually incorporated in the city master plans. Revising the Mobility and Public Space PlanAmsterdam 2013, only a ‘smart’ project, ‘electric car-sharing schemes’, can be found. 

In a similar fashion, the ASC office has a certain risk of operating as a ‘smartwashing’ organism – similar to ‘greenwashing’. The rhetoric of ASC office is often oriented to a marketing narrative of smart cities, with slogans of ‘working with residents’ – while they could be using their districts to test new technologies – or ‘a city is nothing without its residents and visitors’ – basically a ready-to-use slogan. 


In fact, the government of Amsterdam only have local information in Dutch (Gemeente Amsterdam). The English version redirects to the marketing-oriented ‘I Amsterdam’ website, powerful campaign clearly targeting tourists (leisure), expats (services) and foreign investment (businesses) (see Fig. 8). However, there is no information about governmental structure, master plans or strategies to tackle poverty and inequality, to name a few.


Fig 8: English version of the Government of Amsterdam website, called ‘I Amsterdam’, with limited information regarding municipal services.


This marketing orientation is also evident, in Appsterdam, the hackathon organized by ASC. This event is sponsored by Amsterdam ArenA Stadium, founder member of ASC. In the past, this contest gave birth to useful apps as Park Shark, an app to find cheap parking fares. However, this event –as many other hackathons– could also be a cheap way for milking innovative ideas from young developers. In their promo video for 2015, some ‘young talents’ can be seen trying to sleep in stretchers – not the best conditions. Also, the winning app consisted in an alert for available bathrooms, food and beverages at ArenA Stadium, a utility that denotes the importance of private benefits over wider public interest.

On one hand, Amsterdam deserves merit for the balance between private and public interests, both present in complex and large projects. The Municipality limits possible misuses by strong legal requirements and using open platforms when possible. Nevertheless, for smaller projects – often based in the communities – the authorities are more flexible and accept bottom up participation. On the other hand, small projects seem to be the only with actual participation, that is bidirectional communication. Larger projects tend to have consultation instead of participation and involve many non local partners, with low engagement of the civil society.

Overall, Amsterdam has a strong ambition to become one of the smart capitals in the world, with deployed strategies tackling the most important challenges of today: technology, climate change, pollution, etc. However, the transformation of Amsterdam into a smart city is in its infancy, but Amsterdam has firmly taken the firsts steps in this direction, having a good position in many benchmarking studies about smart cities.


4. Bibliography

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