Smart cities are more than technological habitations, according to Eberhard van der Laan, mayor of Amsterdam. “Of course there is always the technological element and it’s a very important element, but we think it’s not enough. Smart things can only come from human beings, in a cooperative process," he says. Laan was part of a delegation to India in March, to strengthen relations between India and Amsterdam, and spoke to Mint in Mumbai.

Smart cooperation

Generating cooperation between different stakeholders requires enabling mechanisms. “The mechanisms for that, that is not so easy, you have to be lucky. It helps when there is a problem to be solved. And everyone has a sense of urgency. That helps. You can organize it, you can give a well-formulated problem, as a start of a process. Bring together the relevant stakeholders, relevant experts. Bring some people who think out of the box, artists for instance, they’re very valuable in that process. You don’t have a guarantee that it will work, but you create circumstances that will certainly help," says Laan.

“Sometimes it just happens. Many times it just happens because of the atmosphere that creates it. When all of these conditions are fulfilled, it’s serendipity, it happens. And sometime you need to organize it, to establish a plan, about urban planning. So you must take care of the process, you must organize the coincidences, the meetings," he says.

A bottom-up process, with the involvement of all relevant stakeholders, has long-term benefits, says Laan, citing the example of the Structural Vision for 2040, a master plan for the Amsterdam metropolitan area. Presented in 2011, the plan won several awards for its spatial planning as well as its democratic, bottom-up process.

Context for planning

The city’s history also fosters better urban planning, says Laan. “These processes are not just invented by the city council, this is more or less a tradition. Amsterdam as a city was always very independent. Historically, its merchants were very sovereign, which was good for this process. Compared with Rotterdam, the other major city in the Netherlands, people say that everything goes faster in Rotterdam, but if a plan is made for Amsterdam, it collapses. We take a long time to approve plans, but every time the project collapses, the next one turns out to be better."

Paco Bunnik, an urban designer in the department of urban planning and sustainability in Amsterdam, explains that smart cities, water management and urban planning are structured as a triangle—“urban planning on the top, like an umbrella, water management on one corner and Amsterdam’s smart cities initiative at the other corner. These departments report to urban planning", he says, adding, “Within this triangle, you can define a project and we want designs on an integrated basis, with all the new technologies. For a long-term urban planning system, all these components must work smartly together."

Urban planning is particularly vital for the country, given its specific geographic conditions, says Bunnik. “In general, we’ve had a long tradition of urban planning, since we’re a country fighting against water. It has always been a very democratic tradition of fighting the water, collectively, from farmer to minister. We’re under the level of sea, under the level of rivers coming from Germany. So when I design an urban plan for Amsterdam, which is one-third water, we need to thoroughly talk to water boards. The system of control and design is a deeply rooted mechanism to survive," he says.

Public-private platforms for planning

In Bunnik’s experience, “good spatial design is 80% communication and only 20% planning. You need to create a majority for the ideas, until you make a decision. So we won’t go for 51%, we’ll go for 70-80% agreement. There’s lot of debate about making a choice; making a good choice is difficult".

Amsterdam’s urban planning process is quite unusual in that the city administration has created a public-private design platform called Amsterdam Smart City, which enables greater collaboration between private sector technological companies, the city administration and local resident associations, says Bunnik.

The design platforms are open, and allow for greater experimentation as they enable companies with smart technologies to be connected with others. For example, “We’re trying to incorporate smart lighting systems and smart energy grids into urban planning. Before you go into construction phase, a lot of work has to be done to integrate all these facilities," he says.

The Dutch government decided to run a small-scale pilot, testing a flexible lighting mechanism near a football stadium, where acts of hooliganism often take place. As football fans come out of the stadium, the smart lighting system can detect movement, and the police with their smart lighting app can increase or decrease the lighting, as the need arises. Thus the energy system can communicate with the city in an intelligent way.

There are some obvious lessons to be learnt from Laan and Bunnik’s account of urban planning in Amsterdam.

First, resources. As Laan summarizes, “One of the main differences between India and the Netherlands, although we’re both democracies, is that we (the Netherlands) have a somewhat better balance between public and private sector. In India, public sector at the local level is not very strong. If you want to be a smart city, if you need to get the sewage and water sanitation organized, then it’s better if the local government is stronger in terms of authority and budgets."

For a city with a population of less than one million people, Bunnik says Amsterdam has “40 urban planners, of which eight are senior planners". He gave up his independent architectural practice to work with the city government, so that “I could work on larger-scale projects. Working in Amsterdam’s urban planning department is the highest way of progressing", he says.

Second, urban planning succeeds only when there are processes, such as design platforms, to align all the forces shaping them—citizen opinion, smart city technology, private sector partnership as well as government policy. Although it is easier said than done, it will be difficult to progress without mechanisms for alignment.

This is the concluding part of a three-part series on how the need for improved local governance and, specifically, the importance of having empowered mayors in all major urban centres is a key element of the urbanization debate in India.