Building Magazine


WEB EXCLUSIVE: Envisioning and Implementing a Smart Society That Will Reach all City Services

Almere is located in the Amsterdam Metropolitan Area, which sits in the northwest of the Netherlands. In many respects, Almere is an unusual city in the Netherlands. Whereas all other cities have a history, which in some cases dates back hundreds of years, this is a city that is less than 40 years old. It is situated in an area that was still a sea 60 years ago. This is a city built on new, reclaimed land about four metres below sea level, currently has 196,000 residents and will continue to grow towards a population of 350,000 to 400,000 people.

The city of Almere came on the drawing board due to the housing shortage in the Netherlands and particularly nearby Amsterdam in the 1960s and ‘70s. But the ambition went beyond that. The idea was to develop a city with the 21st century in mind. The founders sought to create a proper city, preferably ageless, with streets and squares as they used to be, but functioning in today’s and tomorrow’s world. This gives us the first of the recurring themes: the city’s eyes are always on the future (what else can it do, seeing it has no past!).

The founders wanted to develop a city with a mixture of functions — small businesses on street corners, homes above shops — where people would feel at home again. The question that needed answering was how a city actually functions for the people living in it. A nice little example to illustrate this is that the design process of Almere Haven (the first urban district to be developed) soon gave rise to the question what amenities would be needed. “A beautiful cemetery,” the then director replied, “because if we want people to feel at home in this new city, they should be able to bury their loved ones here, and be buried themselves, with dignity!” The second recurring theme in the city’s evolution is therefore the notion that people make the city rather than the other way around.

An important aspect of the development vision was the multiple-district city plan, because it allowed a flexible response to future growth. The greenbelts in between became the foundations of the urban structure. Agriculture and countryside have always been the precursors of urbanization, and this principle was and continues to be applied in Almere. This is why it is so fitting that, in 2022, Almere will host the Floriade World Horticultural Expo, an international exhibition held every 10 years which showcases agricultural and horticultural innovations. For that purpose, a new district will be developed in and from what is now still a rural area. Our expo’s title is ‘Growing Green Cities’, to which I would like to add the adjective ‘Smart’. Right from the beginning, which is now, we try to involve as many residents, professionals, businesses and other stakeholders as possible in the development process.

And this gives us the third recurring theme in this new town’s early evolution: the search for new forms of cooperation and organisation that bring public services closer to the community. A good example of this is the organisation of primary healthcare services in Almere, in which a rule of thumb throughout the city was that care should be combined and provided close to home. Owing to its success, this setup, which was developed in the 1980s, subsequently served as a model for many other municipalities.

In this city we are always on the lookout for unusual alliances and for the energy that is generated when people from entirely different disciplines and backgrounds are keen to work on something. This energy of development is typical of Almere.

The Challenge for Almere

The challenge our city currently faces is to again look into the future 30 to 40 years from now, just like Almere’s founding fathers did 40 years ago when they first outlined the city that was to be built on marshland and be home to some 250,000 people. Our guiding principle, even more explicitly than in those days, is that people turn a collection of bricks, cables, wires and asphalt into a city. People make the city and not the hardware.

So, thinking ahead is what we’ve been doing in recent years. The Dutch government has again asked us to accept a growth target, ultimately to expand the city into a population of 300,000 to 350,000 people. What’s more, the expansion is tied to a major economic target: it’s not just a matter of building new homes, but also of creating a great many new jobs.

The conception of the vision of the city’s further development started with identifying and defining the principles on which that continued urban development should be based. We asked William McDonough to help do that and this process resulted in an important document entitled The Almere Principles: for an ecologically, socially and economically sustainable future of Almere 2030.

Starting from these Principles, the Municipality tries to create conditions for the city’s ongoing development. A closer look at the Principles reveals how well they link up with the three recurring themes in the city’s evolution and why the development of Almere into a Smart Society is such a logical step. It’s easy to recognize those three themes in the Almere Principles: people make the city, a future orientation and innovative partnerships.

The Almere Principles deal with ecological, social and economic sustainability. The first of the seven guidelines illustrates the broad scope of the Principles: ‘cultivate diversity.’ It is related not only to biodiversity but also to social and economic diversity. The other six Principles are related to the relationship between Almere’s own identity and its surroundings:

  1. connect place and context;
  2. combine city and nature;
  3. anticipate change;
  4. continue innovation;
  5. design healthy systems; and
  6. empower people to make the city.

We believe and have therefore formulated a Principle to the effect that the residents of Almere should have a much stronger influence on the development of the city. People ‘make’ the city and cooperate in unique groups on their own future and, consequently, on the future of Almere.

Current Success and Next Steps

Indeed, we are well on our way towards creating a Smart Society. Now and in the near future, it is all about the application of ideas, innovative techniques and new methodologies. An important precondition in that context was the construction of a fibre-optic cable network throughout the city several years ago. Now every home, institution and business can apply for a connection to the network or already has one. With that, we have installed a high-quality basic infrastructure that will enable many applications.

Doing business in these times requires awareness of scarcity and sustainability. That’s precisely where the ‘smart’ bit comes into play. The following two examples show that wasting energy and resources is a thing of the past.

First, a newly built supermarket in Almere Poort has a new product in its range: energy. As you know, supermarkets sell large amounts of fresh produce that must be displayed in refrigerated display cases. Rather than cooling the interior, this supermarket removes heat and transports it to the adjacent apartment complex, where it serves as an energy source.

Second, the world of waste has changed radically within a short period of time. It is like a paradigm shift. There is no waste, because each and every particle can serve as the raw material for new products. In Almere, we launched a campaign entitled “mijn afval maakt winst” (literally “my waste makes a profit”) to encourage the sorting of household waste so that it can be resupplied to the market as new raw materials. The campaign is paying off, given that people’s sorting behaviour continues to improve considerably. Good for our climate
and good for our household bills.

A smart supermarket suddenly turning from energy waster into energy supplier and a smart waste processing company turning rubbish into a commodity: they are two examples of developments that can easily be supported by the use of new technology. Energy systems — whether to generate, consume or transport it — are manufactured smarter, which makes them more efficient and allows them to be combined more easily. It’s simple to make the sorting of waste easier by fitting a chip in people’s bins to optimize the collection logistics.

The fibre-optic cable network in Almere allows us to make video applications available to businesses, institutions and citizens on a large scale. The use of video allows people to get and stay in touch with each other, whether for business or for pleasure. For example, a group of senior citizens sang together in two different locations and discovered the potential meaning of this technology in their lives. They even sang with a choir in Australia. The event has resulted in a true community of elderly citizens who upload videos, exchange e-mails and regularly follow one another online via a live feed. It may seem harmless, but a new world has opened for them. In addition to learning how to operate new devices, they now have access to a social network that didn’t exist before. The elderly have something to occupy them and they are having fun. It is killing three birds with one stone and invaluable, also for all service providers involved.

We all know what today’s congested roads are like, but even there smart solutions have already made quite a few things possible. The use of navigation equipment has become widely accepted to make it easier to get from A to B. In Almere, we use the fact that virtually everyone now has a device like that in their car to our advantage. We pick up the signal that is transmitted by these devices, which allows us to establish how many people are located where in the city and how long it takes for them to travel a particular distance. We then return that information to road users to enable them to adjust their route if necessary; in addition to using the information ourselves to better understand and analyze traffic flows. Although it is not yet common practice, it’s quite conceivable that we will be using people’s navigation systems to gain insight into who plans to visit Almere on a certain day and to offer them certain services, for example pre-booking a parking space.

Most of what happens in the street can be captured on camera. This is being done in two of Almere’s districts. Our CCTV control room is equipped with state-of-the-art facilities, not just for public safety purposes, but also for the day-to-day management of the city. The monitoring will have an impact on a larger scale once we connect it to various kinds of operational systems in the city. In the future, we will also be able to remote control barriers, street lighting, traffic lights, bridges, lifts and many more. Not as a purpose in itself, but simply because it’s in the interest of everyday public life and safety in the city and because the combination of infrastructures creates opportunities to come up with new, even interactive, applications.

Our Smart Society

The essence of the Almere Smart Society mission statement is that we seek to use the full potential of information technology to make living and doing business in the city better, easier, cheaper and more fun. The concept of Almere Smart Society does not exist in isolation but creates conditions in the city that enable services, businesses and residents to be smart in what they do and how they live.

The most important questions and challenges in the development of a Smart Society are not to be found in the field of technology or finding ways to connect systems. Anything (and indeed everything) is possible already and technology will continue to develop. In my opinion, Smart Society therefore has little to do with ICT in the sense that it requires our focus. Obviously, getting properly organized on a technical level is an important precondition for any city — for example, every household in Almere can get a fibre-optic connection because the network is there — but once you’ve reached that stage, entirely different issues come into play.

We are going through the transformation from an industrial era, with organizational principles based on production lines, into an era that focuses on networking and using the full potential of human interaction. And cities are where it’s all happening. We no longer look at reality through institutional glasses but take an urban-scale view, because an ecologically, socially and economically sustainable system will arise from human alliances. People make the city, or, as Richard Florida put it so succinctly, “the city itself is the central organizing unit of our time.”

The transformation from an industry-based way of living, working and organizing into a network-based way of organizing is the biggest challenge of our time. Such transformations don’t happen just like that, they may well take a generation. Let’s start small first.

One of those challenges is finding a way to break the conventional mode of thinking in terms of customer-supplier or client-contractor relationships. That approach is based on a hierarchical and contractual way of organizing, in which money is the regulating force. It’s a model that is all too familiar to us. In fact, we spend entire days negotiating with each other.

Added to that is that we have little faith in one another, so every agreement is made legally watertight. One of the reasons for that lack of trust is a lack of knowledge of one another, at any rate when I’m referring to the vastly different worlds of government, business and NGOs. We simply don’t know each other well enough, frequently misunderstand each other and often don’t even speak the same language.

In my view, these times are not regulated by money and competition, but rather by co-creation. More specifically, the degree to which co-creation can happen. Typical smart-society elements like open data, open networks and open platforms help create the right conditions.

In our search for a new approach that is appropriate to the transition from the industrial era and its related organizational principles to a network society and its underlying principles, I believe we are faced with two major questions that require a joint answer from governments, NGOs and the business community.

The first issue is about governance or, to put it another way, how we collectively aim to shape developments, divide responsibilities, build in transparency and organize public accountability. In the industrial era, the governance model was quite simple. The public authorities — governments — organized the division of responsibility through politics and administration and served as the platform for public accountability. There was a variety of relations between governments, private companies and community-based partners, but they were always embodied in a client-contractor or customer-supplier relationship. Governance at community-based and corporate organizations was limited to their own entity. Clear cut and manageable.

But if we assume that a smart society will no longer be based on principles from the industrial era but rather on open cooperation in varying partnerships, the questions are how exactly are we going to do it and how will we get there.

The second issue is closely related to the first and concerns the revenue models associated with the development of a smart society. In the industrial era we would have called them ‘business cases,’ but that term is no longer appropriate here. Perhaps ‘value cases’ is a better term for what I envisage. It involves the development of revenue models in which investments, savings, proceeds and management costs are shared among all parties i
nvolved in a different way. Not on the basis of temporary contracts between individual parties, but rather on the basis of a sustainable financial system in which the development belongs to us all and in which each of the parties involved may, or even should, act in enlightened self-interest.

I realize that this may all sound rather abstract, so let me give you a specific example.

In Almere, we are working hard on the development of an Early Warning System for families at risk. We are able to combine large amounts of data from our own as well as other sources and link them to postcode. A test version of the system is being used now. It gives an aerial view of the city and allows you to zoom in on streets, combine data on particular streets, save and improve information and access the data used by private parties for marketing purposes.

Discussing such images of the city is conducive to building bridges between social workers in the field, strategists and directors of community-based partners.

On a policy level, we know what factors make families vulnerable and we also know which factors combined increase the potential risk. For example, we know that a combination of high-risk loans, an income from two jobs, home ownership and high mortgage payments is a major sign of socio-economic stress. The Early Warning System enables us to present this information geographically, which allows us to better predict in what parts of the city social problems are likely to arise, possibly resulting in domestic violence, urban blight or crime.

From a policy perspective, the Early Warning System obviously is wonderful progress, because it enables us and other community-based organizations to take better preventative action. And prevention is still cheaper than cure. However, all kinds of new questions present themselves to which we do not yet have an answer. What about people’s privacy? How can we use the knowledge derived from the Early Warning System to implement the public and possibly private funds we pour into our neighbourhoods each year in a smarter and more efficient way? How do we prevent private parties, including banks and insurance companies, from using information from the Early Warning System to impose different conditions on their clients? But there is more: what if insurers were to realize that such an instrument would be of great interest to them too if it could help reduce claims arising from domestic violence, burglaries or vandalism? In that case, serious money would be involved and it would seem advisable to join forces to see how we can flesh out this development without assuming each other’s responsibilities. I don’t know yet how exactly we should organize all this, but what I do know is that we should.

This is only one of the many examples I can give you of where we’ll be seeing new forms of cooperation. To echo Richard Florida again, I think he is spot on when he says that the city is where new alliances will be created because it is the place where people meet, link and combine things and, by doing so, start off a creative process that drives economic development in the new era.

How to Get There

To reiterate: the three recurring themes that characterize Almere’s evolution are:

  • keeping our eyes on the future;
  • putting people first; and
  • looking for innovative forms of cooperation and administration.

They are the exact same principles we apply to the development of Almere Smart Society. It is also the reason why we call ourselves Smart Society rather than Smart City, which could give the impression that it’s driven more by technology and institutes. In our view, a Smart Society will come into being only if it is developed for and by a city’s residents, businesses and institutions.

A catalyst for this development is the partnership that the Municipality entered into last year with a number of private companies united in a consortium. They are IBM, Cisco, Living PlanIT, Philips and utility management company Alliander. But these are all institutes, I hear you say. Yes, indeed they are, but that is precisely why I’m describing the partnership as a catalyst for the development into a Smart Society. Together with these parties, the Municipality has started off a process aimed at involving more and more residents, businesses and community-based partners in the creation of a smarter society. Important principles for this collaborative effort (and also for the partnership between the Municipality and the consortium) are the principles of Creative Commons.

The subject areas in which the city wants to improve are at the centre. We have selected four broad thematic areas, which we have translated into key administrative objectives we seek to achieve in each of those areas. The themes are economic growth, sustainable urban development, efficient urban management and social innovation and cohesion.

The cooperation we are developing in the city — together with the consortium parties — will result in what we have referred to here as an ‘urban network.’ The network is made up of all those who want to contribute to the development. Inspired involvement, continued innovation and co-creation are the key concepts of our partnership. Our collaboration in the field of ICT is based on three familiar principles. We seek to:

  • create an open network infrastructure;
  • develop an open platform; and
  • use open data.

We have laid down our joint ambitions in a Memorandum of Understanding which will expire at the end of 2013 but which is aimed at the longer term. Rather than conducting pilots, we instigate projects and initiatives of a sustainable nature. We are convinced not only that we can, but, more importantly, that we have to, because if we don’t, we will be stuck with the systems and solutions of the past. We endorse the view that the city itself is the central organizing unit of our time. If it truly is, what matters most is creating the conditions that will allow the city’s full potential to manifest itself and thrive.


Annemarie Jorritsma is the mayor of Almere and co-president of the Council of European Municipalities and Regions. Previously, she was the Minister of Transport, Public Works and Water Management in 1994, and from 1998 to 2002 she held the offices of Deputy Prime Minister of the Netherlands and Minister of Economic Affairs.

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