The easiest way to be a smart city? Join forces and share knowledge. That can prevent the growth of ‘digital segregation’ in the future. TomorrowLab first brought these two cities together: Genk and Aalter.

Both cities are attractive growth centres in their region, and both municipal administrations have been praised for their efficient organization, but other than that, they had not much more in common. Why are they now joining forces in the trajectory concerning smart cities led by TomorrowLab? ‘In Genk we are focusing on smart retail and smart mobility. Aalter has opted for smart communication. We are interested in that because we need committed residents for our projects. Each of our cities has its own DNA, but there are many features in the underlying ideas about smart cities. We can’t do everything ourselves, so we share knowledge and organize pilot projects, and learn from those. We hope that more and more cities will join us, ‘remarks Wim Dries, the mayor of Genk.

Pieter De Crem, acting mayor of Aalter, agrees with him. ‘We have always been a pioneer in communication. Our municipal newsletter is sent to each household weekly, for example. But we see that written communication is now not enough. New media have become particularly important. We want to modernise our communication. We want to know when our residents drop by the town hall, the library, the container park or the sports club. What does he or she want to know and what can we offer our residents at that moment?’

Neutral catalyst

TomorrowLab is working not only with scenario planning and developing an integral vision of the future for both cities. The exercises are also translated into concrete innovation pilots. TomorrowLab’s platform makes possible a lot of synergies with dozens of companies and organizations with which it works on an equally open manner. TomorrowLab is thus a neutral catalyst among all parties: from city to company, from smart initiative to practical tests.

If you want to be a smart city, you need a vision for that, otherwise it becomes digital segregation.

Joachim De Vos, Managing Director of TomorrowLab: ‘If you want to be a smart city, you need a vision, of course, otherwise it becomes digital segregation’. That means you each run separate pilot projects that don’t add anything new overall. The best way to become a smart city: think before you act, and learn from it.’ He points to the three universal pillars on which innovation and technology in a smart city are based. ‘One is cost savings and working more efficiently, which makes all sorts of growth possible. Second is improving the quality of life in the city. Think of mobility, air quality, the environment.

Third, one that is often forgotten, is improving the social character of the city. How can you involve people so that they can progress?’ Herman Van Rompuy, chairman of the advisory board of TomorrowLab, also finds that a smart city should ‘not be limited purely to technology’. Technology must be embedded in a social context. It is important to put the emphasis on what residents want. Otherwise you have a technologically-driven city.’ Both mayors are in full agreement. Pieter De Crem: ‘The human factor must not be underestimated. An abstract project also requires powers of persuasion. People must see its added value. Do the services we will offer virtually meet the real needs?’ Herman Van Rompuy adds, ‘Technology gives the government the chance to be more demand-driven, and you can make the needed adjustments more rapidly. You know the needs, you know the behaviours and you can adapt more quickly. The old model was that we know better than you do. The offer was shaped by the government. Now we are shifting from supply to demand.’

Wim Dries: ‘We all realize that we have to organize ourselves differently in light of this shift. That is something we are now all doing, but we need help with it. TomorrowLab has different methods from ours. With scenario planning, you dare to look at the distant future as well. Are we becoming hypercommercial, or just anticommercial? Will we move a lot further still or will we go back to the beginning? You can test these extreme scenarios and see the pitfalls we need to avoid. We have finished the scenarios for retail and mobility. Now we are testing out concrete projects and want to set up pilots.’

"The social character of a city is often forgotten." Herman Van Rompuy

The first pilot projects

‘A great challenge for Genk is smart retail. I believe that physical shops will continue to exist. We can see that in all future scenarios that we have rolled out with TomorrowLab. Only the shop will have to develop be both physically and digitally into a place where there is a lot to be experienced. We would like to develop a pilot project by launching small city manufacturers, so as to bring crafts back into the city. There is a lot of demand. People want something unique, custom-made and preferably the same day. Mass production will continue to come from other countries, but here we will increasingly go for the “latte”. That stands for ‘local, authentic, traceable, trustworthy and ethical.

The resident does not want a technologically driven city, but a human city

In the coming months, Aalter and Genk will roll out a number of pilot projects. The results will be shared with all other cities and cities that join the initiative. Aalter has already added the incubator as a pilot project. Graduating students can work on concrete projects here, with the support of the municipality. The ‘IncubAalter’ is a sort of Palo Alto or Silicon Valley, but on a more modest scale’, says Pieter De Crem. Genk is investigating, among other things, the use of loyalty cards in retail. ‘What model can the government join in? As a government, we have the connection with our residents. How do you gain value from that? A public-private partnership does not mean the public partner pays and the private partner derives all the benefit. How can we jointly create value for society?’

In terms of mobility, Genk is thinking about using big data about passengers’ behaviour to improve public transport routes. ‘Do we still need expensive underground parking lots once self-driving cars are here’, wonders Wim Dries.