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EU plans for energy efficiency in urban areas – Transitioning from Concerto to Smart Cities

November 12, 2013

In my previous post, I have tried to look at means of improving community life by explaining the difference between Norwegian Grants and EU funds, as well as how they can complement each other for a common ideal. For the present one, I’ve decided to continue on the same note and present what those interested in society issues – and energy efficiency specifically – can expect of Smart Cities, EU’s new co-financing initiative for intelligent urban development. For a bit of flavor, I will also give you an update of the general vibe on the CONCERTO conference in Brussels which I have just returned from.

Smart Cities (http://www.eu-smartcities.eu/ ) represents the EU’s support for regions and cities who wish to develop in a sustainable and community-friendly manner. In a sort of indirect way, it is an answer to the fact that cities are responsible for 70% of the EU’s energy consumption as well as to the fact that most Europeans now live in urban areas. In line with the union’s aims on energy and climate change, the Smart Cities Initiative will provide support (both financial and know-how) to three interconnected pillars – buildings, energy networks and transport. So, by combining new building construction ideas with utilizing renewable energy  and low carbon public transport – to name just a few -, the initiative’s planners hope to achieve a 40% reduction of greenhouse gas emissions as well as to put together the basis of smart management.

Still, Smart Cities is not entirely new as it is a continuation – and, arguably, an upgrade – to the CONCERTO Initiative (http://concerto.eu/concerto/ ) which is now coming to an end. With Concerto, 22 projects in 58 cities were implemented, providing a starting point for the endeavors which are foreseen for Smart Cities. What the EU hopes to do next is to take these projects and multiply them – preferably on a larger scale – drawing more and more partners into cooperation. To support this upgrade, a new Strategic Implementation Plan defining the core activities for the integration of Transport, ICT and Energy technologies – will make it easier for cities to apply for EU instruments.

Sometimes the best way to get the pulse of things and get an idea about how things work beyond the EU talk is to be around those who are involved in this business. For this purpose, the CONCERTO Conference on Energy solutions for Smart Cities and Communities which I have just attended in Brussels on the 22nd of October was very interesting for me as a project manager, for several reasons.

First of all, the event was a great opportunity to see what happened with CONCERTO projects and what project managers and EU people alike expect from the recently-started Smart Cities initiative. Albeit delays and other managerial issues, most projects which sought to find really innovative solutions to the way we as communities consume energy, have been completed and people are now hoping to do even more. From my personal observation, at least on the declarative level, the bar has been raised; through its new financial framework, the Commission wishes to see concrete results, which will work not just in small villages, but can be replicated on a large, potentially national scale. To illustrate this, Ireland is a great example. Under Concerto II, the small European country developed a project – Holistic (http://www.concerto-holistic.eu/ ) – whose aim was to showcase how to employ different energy technologies in a smart and integrated manner.  Since its completion, the results demonstrated locally by the project have now become national standards and I personally believe that this is the way to go. What Europe needs now is to move from these small scale projects to something which has regional or national application. If we look at China, for instance, they are doing much better than us exactly because they do things on big scale.

Another great thing about the conference was the fact that it brought together managers from three different project generations – Concerto I, Concerto II and Smart Cities (which only began in 2012). In practice, this meant that all of us could just sit down at the round table and discuss any concern about whichever moment of the project life-cycle. Before meeting the Concerto and EU representatives, we had enough time to discuss financial issues, protocols as well as little issues pertaining to daily management.

Overall, the advantages for those who participate in a Smart Cities project are many fold. For a municipality, the key gain would be the chance to have access to cutting-edge technology and infrastructure. Basically, you work with the best people for the best possible outcome. Moreover, half the project’s expenses are paid by the Commission. So, instead of worrying about the limitations of your own budget, you have the possibility to pay less for something which is many times better. This is why initiatives like CONCERTO and Smart Cities are beneficial for society as a whole – they help authorities and people alike.

It would only be fair, of course, to highlight that, as with any other initiative or funding source, there are some less than great aspects which need to be considered.  Smart Cities is an EU initiative which means it will bear the same general administration procedures i.e. bureaucracy. Secondly, and perhaps the first thing that we need to really consider, either CONCERTO or Smart Cities initiatives imply bringing together many stakeholders whose different needs mean putting significant strains on the management process. It can happen that some people would not give their permission to alter their building or some designer will clash with an engineer. It will take a lot of persuasion, diplomacy and patience to make sure everybody is on board for the same goal.

On top of this, problems may arise when, let’s say, a municipality has elections and someone new comes in charge. That person may not know much about the project or may not be interested in the same way. And let’s not forget the economic crisis, which affected the construction segment really badly and caused significant delays with CONCERTO planning. In some cases, like the Stacato project, for instance, delays meant years.

To conclude, I think it is safe to say that, as we move from Concerto to Smart Cities, we are now transitioning to a new stage of EU programmes. Things are not perfect just yet, but there is visible evidence that the direction the EU has taken is generally good and quite a few projects have had results which can be further replicated in less developed areas of the continent. Overall, the efforts to increase participation and dissemination are welcome, but it is time we start thinking big.

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