For Genk, the smart city concept stopped being science fiction a long time ago. For the last eight years, the municipal administration has been working with TomorrowLab on a holistic plan to prepare the city for the future.
And it is not just a question of thinking about it, but new projects are being introduced all the time that embody unprecedented creativity for Belgium. Nevertheless, Mayor Wim Dries is managing to bring the whole population on board with his visionary ideas.
Why does Genk want to evolve into a smart city?
Wim Dries: "Like many other cities, we have to contend with problems of mobility, security and vacant premises. These days, it is also obvious that we should be trying to reduce our environmental footprint. A good Mayor wants to pull out all the stops to improve the well-being of local residents. Traditionally, all these fields were dealt with separately, but we noticed that that approach did not make much difference. That is why we started thinking eight years ago about a more holistic and integrated approach, which brought us to the concept of a smart city."
So what is your definition of a smart city?
"Many people make the mistake of thinking that a smart city is the same thing as technology. Technology is a means, not an end. In recent years, a vast array of technological resources have become available that can actually solve the problems in cities. At least, if they are applied as part of a holistic vision and with the necessary creativity. We think that smart city means a city where technology helps to improve everyone's lives, in an inclusive manner, i.e. with the support of all stakeholders. For us, that means cutting costs and working more efficiently, increasing the quality of life in the city and improving the social character of city life. The initiatives to achieve that are based on four key areas: sustainability, citizen engagement, innovation and technology/data."
Why did you seek the help of TomorrowLab?
"Between 2011 and 2013, we talked to a lot of private companies that came to present the smart city concept as a technological solution. But we were left rather disappointed: there wasn't an approach based on content, whereas we wanted to develop a vision and embed that in the way the city was organised. Because they are not selling a product, TomorrowLab can approach things in a totally different way. This organisation helped us reflect about the way in which you can evolve into a smart city, developed a roadmap especially for us, assisted us to convert the ideas into practice, and encouraged us to keep thinking about new initiatives. The switch-over is always a long-term task. First and foremost you need to proceed one step at a time, otherwise you will lose the support of the population. We don't even use the term smart city, but take action and continually launch innovative projects that sometimes take a completely different approach to what Genk is used to. That works like a spiral: one project gives you ideas for another one. Or you learn from mistakes how to do things differently. By 2030, we aim for Genk to really deserve the title of smart city.
What initiatives have you already taken?
"We have been rolling out initiative for five years now. It is a whole laundry list, but I will restrict my remarks to the most striking projects. Recently we started with Urban Factories which emphasises creative, small-scale entrepreneurship, particularly in the city centre. The 'latte' concept is key: local, traceable, true-hearted and ethical. The aim is to kill several birds with one stone: reduce vacant premises, bring craft trades back into town, create jobs and give Genk the image of an interesting shopping city. And now for something completely different: talent coaches. Volunteers who encourage disadvantaged children to do something useful with their spare time. In 2014, we introduced a multi-channel approach for e-government. We are putting our faith in the sharing economy, including shared cars and bikes. Together with Luminus, we are examining how much energy households can save, by installing new heating controls and monitoring systems in 500 houses."
What is on the programme for 2018?
"In January, we are starting with an innovative shop & go parking system. In principle, anyone can park free for 30 minutes, but retailers can extend that to 1.5 hours. In addition, we want to devote more energy to collecting all kinds of information and smart use of meta-data. Finally, we have started on a new approach to mobility, in which technologies like parking guidance systems and mobility proposals are being tested, with the aim of coming up with mobility as a service. We are doing this with the whole of Limburg province, because we soon realised that for certain projects, it is better to join forces. That is why we were the initiator of a project in which 44 towns and villages in Limburg teamed up to grow into a smart region."
Can we conclude that Genk is setting an example for other towns and cities in Belgium?
"I think that in Genk, like other cities in Flanders, we are working well and actually thinking about the migration to a smart city. We have already taken a lot of concrete initiatives. We are slowly growing towards the model we were aiming for and are extremely happy with the results we have already achieved. Actually we are not the only ones who think that. Listening to people's reactions, the majority of Genk residents think that too!"