Skip to content

Smartness as an enabler of life

KTH – Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm has invested in a major push around the topic of smart and sustainable cities.  Smart cities have been discussed for several years, the Centre for a Sustainable Built Environment asks what’s new in the university’s approach.

It’s refreshing to talk with Dr Olga Kordas from KTH about the future of smart and sustainable cities. Whilst she mentions sensors, systems integration and big data with the natural authority she’s earnt through being the Director of KTH’s Energy Platform, technologies are not the focus of our conversation at all. People are. For Olga Kordas smart cities are about enabling lives in sustainable urban environments.

“We have witnessed a lot of “technology push” over the past decade in smart city thinking” comments Olga, smiling at projects that promised to switch on washing machines remotely in the middle of the night when power is readily available, “but these ideas have struggled to find traction in real life”.

“Today” continues Olga, “we want to help people live and enjoy their lives in cities that are sustainable; smart technologies are an enabler of this. That’s what “smart” means now. It’s about understanding the users of cities, its people, and how the cities these people can successfully reduce their impact on the planet”.

In the short film above, Olga introduces some of KTH’s work on smart and sustainable cities.

Whilst Olga in no way dismisses the intelligent control and optimization properties of smart solutions – such as smoother transport flows or better distribution of power – seeing these as making an essential contribution to urban sustainability, her approach suggests these properties should be placed in the context. Instead, she argues that we need to draw forward the human focus that is necessary to ensure that smart solutions are relevant, useful and adopted.

The human future of smart

Olga highlights three areas of research focuses around people, human behaviour and social systems essential to future-thinking about Smart Sustainable Cities.

The empowered citizen

First, particularly in Scandinavia, she thinks that smart technologies have an important role to play in enabling the citizen, providing a channel through which people can access information to support their decisions – and contribute information to help city-makers take better decisions on their behalf. Shouldn’t the city’s transport information system and weather information be integrated and available to commuters to help them make better decisions about their route to work, for example? Today might be a fine day to cycle, instead of take the bus.

Technologies for humans

Second, Olga argues that smart technologies should be designed after societal needs, not simply from technology potentials.  A meter that shows you how much money you as an individual are saving through optimizing energy use in your home may be less effective that a meter showing you how the sum of energy savings in your neighbourhood are contributing to CO2 reductions in the city as a whole. We are social beings, motivated to be part of wider communities and goals. Whilst we will have to adapt our behaviours to achieve sustainability goals, we need to work with our underlying behavioural preferences in an intelligent manner to get results.

Smart leadership

Third, Olga reflects that city and industry leaderships, again groups made up of people, need better support to establish how they want to engage with smart urban technologies at a strategic level. Olga comments further that many existing business models are not receptive towards the benefits of smart sustainable cities, such as reduced power needs, making industry reluctant to engage. Leaderships need information, experience and supported during this transition phase.

KTH is currently drawing its considerable resources in smart and sustainable cities together so that the different dimensions of this challenge can be addressed in the round. Together with partners from public life and industry the university has produced a Strategic Innovation Agenda for Smart and Sustainable Cities which can be accessed here.