Smart city: How Brussels is using tech to improve day-to-day life

The drone lifts off the ground, hovers for an instant, then zooms off between the spires that frame the town hall and over the rooftops of the redbrick apartments that dot the Brussels commune of Schaerbeek. It flies over the neo-Gothic Saint-Servais church and Lehon square, before swooping down to the homes on Avenue Louis Bertrand. Equipped with thermal imaging cameras, the drone takes photos of all the buildings below to record heat emissions. The readings will be combined with data from the city’s property register to provide the 130,000 Schaerbeek residents with personalised information on their homes, including energy loss and the cost of insulating the roofs and walls.

The project – though not yet implemented – figures high on the local authorities’ agenda as the 19th- and early 20th-century buildings are in dire need of renovation. Already the second-largest district in the Brussels region, Schaerbeek’s population has increased by nearly a fifth in the past 15 years, but the municipality remains one of the poorest in the country with an unemployment rate of around 25% and one in every 10 residents living below the poverty line.

“We have to be innovative,” says mayor Bernard Clerfayt. “Our residents don’t have the money to maintain and renovate their homes. One way to help them is to show them exactly what needs to be done to reduce the costs of heating.”

The drone project, which made headlines in 2014 when it competed in the Bloomberg Mayors Challenge for the grand prize of €5 million, has been postponed due to lack of funding, but it’s just one of many programmes in the works in Schaerbeek, as the municipality intends to become more efficient about its resources and infrastructure.

“We work on a very limited budget and we need to be creative with how we spend it,” says Clerfayt. “One thing is certain. We can no longer maintain the old style of running a municipality because it costs a lot. The current system dates back to the nineteenth century, so it’s time to rethink every step of the process.”

Among other improvements, Schaerbeek is working on becoming a paperless administration that uses digital signatures and electronic registration instead of the traditional paper trail.

The town hall also aims to be accessible around the clock, which is why it will soon launch a new website. “You shouldn’t have to take days off just to register your child at school or pay for a parking permit,” Clerfayt says. “It should be as easy as buying a plane ticket. Three clicks and you’re done.”

The city already has intelligent cameras that track criminal activity and is investing in a digital map to improve urban planning. Once finished, the map will contain information about rubbish collection and the number of trees and green areas, as well as vacant offices.

“There are a lot of underused buildings in our municipality,” Clerfayt says. “Imagine you’re looking for a meeting space for your organisation. At the moment, you need to make several phone calls to figure out what rooms are available and where, as well as how much they cost and what services they offer. In future, you’ll be able to find all this information and reserve a meeting place online.”

The improvements reflect the general trend worldwide as cities respond to demographic changes. In 2008, the number of people living in urban areas surpassed the number of rural dwellers for the first time in history. The congestion, increased parking pressure and rising greenhouse gas emissions are just a few of the associated problems.

The challenge for cities is to become smarter and use information and communication technologies to improve the quality and performance of their services, to reduce the costs and consumption of resources, and to engage more effectively with their residents.

Inspiration elsewhere

Think of major metropolitan areas like Copenhagen or Stuttgart, which have developed citywide frameworks for smart projects. One of the cornerstones of the Danish capital’s programme is its smart electricity and energy system that relies on renewable sources, such as wind power and waste incineration, for a large chunk of its energy supply. The grid combines electricity meters with variable tariffs and a data hub that enable consumers to use the power when it’s least expensive.

Stuttgart, on the other hand, is working on a multimodal transport system with which people can seamlessly divide their travel between shared cars, bikes and conventional public transport.

Back in Brussels, the municipalities of Molenbeek and Sint-Agatha-Berchem have focused on sustainable and intelligent energy. Three nursing homes in the two communes will soon enjoy an energy management system that was initially developed for a polar station in Antarctica. Considered zero-emission, the system draws its energy from local renewable resources, including wind and solar power, and redistributes it via a smart grid similar to the one in Copenhagen.

While some communes focus on energy, others are investing in wireless technology. For five years, the police in Ixelles have been using a radio-positioningservice that makes it possible to locate patrol cars so they can be quickly dispatched to any location. Since 2014, this has been extended to portable radios allowing for real-time location of foot patrols. Several communes also offer free Wi-Fi in public libraries and squares.

On the regional level, the government has appointed Bianca Debaets to oversee the digitalisation of Brussels. With the Brussels Regional Informatics Centre (Bric), a public interest think-tank, she will oversee a five-year plan that focuses on the key challenges of connectivity, sustainability, data openness and safety.

Among the more ambitious projects, Debaets wants to equip all 388 primary and secondary schools with broadband connectivity by 2019. Currently, only 23 have it. “Living in the city isn’t always easy, so we have to make things easier for our citizens. I want Brussels to be in the top five of smart cities,” she says.

Several other projects have been under way for some time. Villo!, the bike rental programme launched in 2009, has more than 30,000 subscribers. Jef van Damme, a member of the Brussels parliament, is also quick to point out that the public transport system is being revamped with additional metro lines and cleaner busses.

“Then you have the new pedestrian zone, which is the longest in Europe,” says the Molenbeek politician who works on public space and sustainability. “It’s not going to make a huge difference for the region in terms of traffic reduction, or lower the pollution in any significant way, but it is symbolically important because it shows the rest of Brussels that ambitious projects can and should be happening.”

According to Raoul Penneman, business development manager at 1Spatial, Brussels is already an innovative region. His software company has partnered with Schaerbeek and other municipalities on a number of projects and is responsible for managing data collected by the drones.

“The capital has a long way to go, but it’s off to a good start,” he says. “Take Bric, for example. It’s a fantastic platform. Funded by the federal and regional governments, it has developed perhaps the most detailed 3D map of any city in Europe. It’s also created an app called Fix My Street, through which residents can report cracks in streets and pavements simply by taking a photo on their phones. If the programme is well-maintained, it could be applied to other areas, such as waste collection.”

Private sector innovation

Private companies have also taken matters into their own hands. Among the more innovative is BePark, which has introduced the concept of shared parking. “Twenty percent of all traffic in this city is due to people looking for parking,” says marketing and product manager Dorian de Broqueville. “Our idea is simple. We work with office buildings, hotels and other real estate owners that have parking lots, which are frequently underused. Using our website or an app, customers can locate car parks that are closest to them and claim a spot.”

When the driver pulls up to the gate, they call a number, type in the personal access code and voila. “When they check in, our database automatically updates to show the number of available spots,” de Broqueville says. The company was started in 2011, with financial assistance from the regional government and Bric, and has about 20,000 customers. “In 2015, we finally broke even and became self-sufficient,” he says. “The focus now is on finding the right partners and expanding abroad.”

“It’s all great, but compared to the rest of Europe, Belgium is still five to ten years behind,” says Ingrid Reynaert, business group leader of smart cities at Agoria, the technology industry federation. “We see small-scale projects here and there but nothing on a larger scale, not in mobility, not in energy. For a number of years, there hasn’t been enough investment in digital infrastructure, which has become very outdated. And Brussels lacks any real long-term vision. Yes, the regional administration is drawing up plans and hosting conferences, but these efforts remain very fragmented.

“Now is not the time to sit down and relax,” she says. “The administration has to put all the ambitious words into action.” And to do so, it needs to prioritise. “Let’s start with mobility. We need to develop an open platform, where a resident can decide how to get from point A to point B using different transport options.”

The next step is smart energy. “Let’s take Schaerbeek as a pilot project for improving energy management,” she says. “You can start with identifying and insulating buildings. It’s a quick win but it won’t be enough in the long term. There needs to be a region-wide framework for developing a sustainable smart grid.”

And that perhaps is the biggest challenge. “It’s important to remember that Brussels, unlike other major metropolitan areas, is a cluster of nineteen different municipalities,” Reynaert says. “Just look at public transport. Any street renovations have to be negotiated between the communes and the mayors don’t even have jurisdiction over where the buses will stop or where to install bike racks. You cannot discuss mobility if you have no say on what’s going on in your neighbourhood.”

Like Schaerbeek, each of the municipalities has its own smart city programme. “But if you develop separate policies, separate mobility platforms and separate smart grids, you will never be successful,” Reynaert says. “A sustainable long-term vision requires close collaboration between all nineteen communities.”

This means keeping an eye on the bigger picture. “There needs to be a lot less unnecessary discussion over every little detail,” says MP Van Damme. “We need to give more power to the regional government and get rid of the local hurdles. It’s going take years, but we’re moving in the right direction.”

This article was first published in The Bulletin magazine

Leave a comment