Urban laboratories: GrowSmarter project is a leading light for smart cities

Stockholm, Barcelona and Cologne have taken on the role of urban laboratories for cities of the future as part of a European project aimed at making cities smarter and greener.

Piloted in the three ‘Lighthouse Cities’, the GrowSmarter urban laboratories initiative brings together cities, industry and academia to demonstrate viable solutions for energy, infrastructure and transport. The Lighthouse Cities give other cities across Europe the opportunity to connect with providers and replicate the smart solutions used in the pilot projects.

From low energy districts and integrated infrastructure to sustainable urban mobility, the project explores different methods of reducing carbon emissions through 12 smart solutions for sustainable living. The GrowSmarter project was one of three chosen from over 19 submissions to receive support from the European Commission under the Smart City and Community (SCC1) Horizon 2020 funding stream.

Gustaf Landahl, project co-ordinator and Head of Department for Planning and Environment in the Environment and Health Administration at the City of Stockholm, told us how how the 12 smart solutions put forward in the project could help cities across Europe to upgrade their infrastructure, save energy and use data to live more efficiently.

What are the objectives of the GrowSmarter project and how can other cities across Europe learn from it?

I wanted to make this project very practical and use ‘smartness’ and new technologies to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The technology already exists, but the big issue is getting it to the market and in use by people and cities. Demonstrating and creating a market for smart solutions is very important. I wanted to give the industrial partners in this project a very active role. It should not only be about them delivering products for us, but about them being able to take orders based on the work they do with GrowSmarter. That is one way to make sure their innovations can be replicated in other places.

In this project we see the digital aspects as enabling technologies, not as an end in their own; and that is very important. I believe that most cities face problems. Looking at buildings for example, the focus is mainly on newly built buildings; but most of the building stock in use is much older. Around one third of Europeans live in buildings from the 1960s and 70s, which are all in need of renovation. Under GrowSmarter, buildings from the 60s have been refurbished to meet newly built energy standards. If we see this potential, we can start putting in solutions to save energy and give people better instruments to control their own use of energy.

The 12 GrowSmarter solutions are not the only smart solutions available, but they can be used in many cities. For them to be largely implemented must make sense in terms of payback periods; we have done both technical and financial evaluations throughout the project and are now producing reports on whether they meet the requirements of being financially sustainable.

In what ways is the project harnessing new technology and digitalisation to upgrade existing infrastructure and buildings?

Cities have to take care of waste better and use heat more efficiently, for example. If we look at infrastructure, cities need to improve their waste handling and the sorting of different recycling fractions. That is difficult to implement in existing buildings, as houses have not been built with lots of space for different fractions.

For telecommunications, we will soon be moving over to 5G which has shorter wavelengths. This means cities need to have transponders much closer to the users if we don’t want to use too much energy. That is 10 times as many transponders and these will need to be built into the already existing city environment, so we demonstrate that in our urban laboratories as well.

Cities also produce a lot of waste heat, which can then be used in cities where they have district heating systems. The Facebook server which has been put up in the North of Sweden, for example, has been put there because it is cool up there. However, the excess heat only heats the air for the mosquitoes – it would be better to use it to heat the homes and hot water for people. With this in mind, we introduced a new business model where the district heating company can buy the excess heat produced by facilities like server halls and grocery stores – this heat can then be used instead of primary energy. We also have to better balance demand for electricity with the production of electricity.

In Stockholm we have LED streetlights which have sensors, so they can feel when someone is walking or biking past and increase their luminosity three lights ahead and three lights behind. We also have smart home systems which give people real time information about the levels of hot water, electricity and energy they are using for heating so they can better control their own usage. What we have to do better is to include more gamification in that information. If we can start making it more fun, we can probably get people saving a lot more.

How are the urban laboratories incorporating smart solutions for transport and mobility?

All cities have problems with mobility. It is not just the number of cars in cities but the increasing flow of goods: people are buying four pairs of shoes on the internet and sending back three of them, which is increasing the flow of goods traffic. We hope to tackle these challenges with the 12 GrowSmarter solutions.

Stockholm is very good at planning car traffic, but it does not have a lot of information on pedestrian and cycling traffic. We have tried using the way people’s mobile phones connect to wifi in the area where there is a big stadium in order to help people leave the area safely by providing them with the best public transport route. We have collected a lot of information now about the way people move in real time and can give them suggestions as to where they can find the best available public transport, considering the amount of people moving away from the place in real time.

Another example is that people buy a lot of things online and often they have to drive away to collect the goods at a store or delivery station – postal services hardly exist anymore. Here, we have introduced a delivery room in an apartment building, making it easier for the tenants to collect goods they have bought online. The last part of the deliveries is done by bicycle. By doing this it is simpler for people to buy goods online when they get it delivered to the delivery room. We eventually may include refrigeration in these rooms, as more and more people are ordering their groceries on the internet.

What are your thoughts on the policy landscape in Europe surrounding implementing initiatives that meet climate objectives?

In Stockholm we have reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 60% per capita. The last 40% of emissions reduction is more difficult because it is largely dependent on people’s behaviour. During our work we have seen that in some cases there is legislation from the EU that should be done in other ways. Together with our two sister projects, we are going to present our experiences and examples we see of legislation that needs to be changed at the European Week of Cities and Regions on 8 October this year.

One issue is that electric vehicles cannot be the only green alternative to all traditional forms of transport. We will need alternative fuels as well; and the very strong restrictions placed on biofuel crops by the European Commission has put a is now counterproductive for climate work. This was introduced in the belief that if you used crops for fuels there would be a shortage of food; but on the other hand 40% of the budget in Europe is going to agriculture – farmers are paid to keep their fields empty to avoid a grain surplus which puts pressure on prices. These farmers could instead receive money to grow crops for biofuel production on their land. This would make the European cost for agriculture lower, make farmers happier and would reduce climate gas emissions from the transport sector in a cost efficient way.

Another issue is that smart electric meters have not been implemented the way they should be: the European Commission needs to follow this up and make sure it is implemented according to European legislation. A lot of national things need to change, like the way surplus electricity is taxed in different countries, which can limit the use of solar panels, for example.

Gustaf Landahl

Project Co-ordinator


City of Stockholm



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