Stockholm joined the increasing number of cities around the world adopting a “smart city” vision when the city council voted in April to implement a new strategy to make the Swedish capital “smart and connected“. The Local spoke to mayor Karin Wanngård to find out what it means, if this is just another innovation buzzword, or if the hi-tech, green and equal vision will shape the future of the city and its residents.
So, Stockholm is to become the world's smartest city?
Of course! (laughs)
What does that mean?
It means that there is a very strong focus on these issues. It's not just about having a clear goal but it is important to work with digitalization and smart solutions. I have also allocated money in the budget to finance this, because it's one thing to develop the solutions, but then they also have to be implemented.
So this is meant to be a very clear programme about how we will continue to work on this. Of course we have a strong IT department, but it is also to do with us launching innovation grants that benefit the development of digital environments.
Okay, but what does that mean in practice?
I can tell you that I don't have the answers to everything today as a politician about what it means in practice, but I do have a wealth of different problems and questions and challenges in my daily life, and that could be everything from powered rubbish bins with solar cell systems that let you know when they are full and need to be emptied to projects we are working on such as, for example, how the traffic lights work.
Today we've got a fairly complicated system where you always have to dig in the road to set up the lights so that they prioritize buses, but we would rather have a digital network system that tells you “now there's a bus coming” – and that could then be extend to “now there's an ambulance” or “here's a police car responding to an emergency” and adjust the traffic flow based on that.
We have also tried in one school to link up absence reports and the order of food. That may sound simple and obvious, but it is nothing that has been done before. We saw during only a five-week trial that it saved 550 portions that they did not have to throw away and did not have to be ordered.
There is always something that you can develop and… get smarter at! Maybe it sounds like we're using this whole “smart cities” concept too much, but it's about making these small steps forward that together make us more efficient, more environmentally friendly and keep us moving in the right direction.
When you talk about smart cities, it's easy to think that it's all about wi-fi and having fast internet access, but it sounds like there's more to it than that?
That's right! But that is also an important part. We are trialling 5G in Kista, driverless buses, much of it is based on us being a connected city – and Stockholm is, much thanks to Stokab, our own cable company as it was called when it was formed 30 years ago – to ensure that we have fibre broadband, and all companies and pretty much 95 percent of all households are connected.
Of course that makes a difference when you want to test new things or work remotely. But you can't just sit and develop computer technological solutions if there's no demand for the product. That's why I started Digital Demo Stockholm where we work together with KTH Royal Institute of Technology, Vattenfall, Skanska, Scania. We've got the challenges, they see if there's a business sense, and KTH has the research, and then we synchronize this to keep us moving forward – I think that is crucial on the international market that we see solutions that more cities can benefit from.
Is there a lot of international interest in what you're doing?
Yes, there is. I am delighted that there is international interest, but I am surprised how little interest there has been locally. It is evident that there are a lot of people who are interested in the way we work. We tend to think that Stockholm is a big capital, but by international standards one million residents is not huge.
But they look at how we collaborate and how we share positive examples, how to we succeed: a clear vision, a budget that finances it, we're investing more than half a billion kronor in these issues, and constant collaboration between business and academia.
Why do you think there's been less local interest?
Well, sometimes it's just like that, that there are other local issues that are bigger, but I think it's getting more and more interest. We know for example that programmers are the most common profession in Stockholm and we are also aware of the skills shortage, so we had a big hack-a-thon in the Blue Hall (in Stockholm City Hall) with 12-year-olds learning to code, and it's good to get an understanding for how important it is that young children understand that programming is important, because it's a new language, not Swedish or English but it's its own language that can also be spoken internationally.
Sweden is known for being environmentally friendly, gender equal, hi-tech and so on – is the country really that focused on this or is it just an image it promotes because it's how it likes to be seen?
We're working really, really hard in these areas. For one thing I appointed a programming commission to get young children to learn this and discover it at a young age. It's also about developing ideas and solutions to the problems of tomorrow, which are not known yet but have to be figured out. That we have open data, that we contribute with open source data so that anyone can access it to build their own solutions. The SL app (Stockholm's public transport) is a clear example of that, in the beginning it was built by a private individual because of open source data.
Stockholmers also want to be first when it comes to trying the latest and that helps a lot. “Oh, a new app, we have to try that!”
What happens to those who, for whatever reason, don't want to be part of this digitalization process?
It's always been like that in history every time society changes. Not everyone wanted to be part of the switch to card payments, when people started using mobile phones some would rather stick to their home phone – there are always people who don't want to or don't feel like they can learn.
Today digitalization is pretty easy to get the hang of, at the same time as it can be frustrating at times! I was using a public toilet the other day and you have to get in using some damn code and then you pay and get a code back, and you're in a hurry, “I have a seven-year-old who has to pee, where is my five-kronor coin…?!”
So, of course, digitalization can be frustrating at times but it's also a prerequisite to improving life for as many people as possible. That's why I argue that it is so important that the city is an important actor in the future of digitalization, but also that you learn at a young age, because it will make your life easier and better for more people.
But of course you always try to get everyone on board and you have to learn digital technology. Invitations are handed out via Facebook these days and it's difficult to say that “I don't have Facebook”, because then, well, you don't get invited. It's going to get even more difficult to not be part of the digital world.
What about people who can't be part of it in the same way? How do you make sure Stockholm is a smart city for everyone?
This is hugely important, especially when you're talking about people with disabilities. I return to this example of the traffic lights, that you could for example have an app if you have a disability to give you more time to cross the street. There are also those who have difficulties using a phone and there's tech there – more from the industry than the city – to adapt the phones and make them bigger. So those are also important questions.
But at the same time you have for example one team who figured out how to use all our data about air pollution and create an app for asthmatics indicating what streets to avoid on a certain day. So digitalization also improves a lot of things because we can make available information which makes it easier for us as individuals to for example get information about traffic queues or air pollution.
*Asthma Watch won the Open Stockholm competition 2017 where developers built new apps using open data from Stockholm.
Norra Djurgårdsstaden is one area where homes are built with a green and smart perspective in mind. Photo: Claudio Bresciani/TT
There has been a lot of talk about the risks of living in a “surveillance society”? To go back to your previous example, perhaps I don't want my credit card company to know when I use a public toilet…
No, but they do know (laughs). It's like that. You have your phone, they know where you are from your GPS, you have Facebook – but then the question is, what is this information used for and how long it can be stored and where is the surveillance? There's a wealth of movies about the surveillance society from a negative perspective about what it could lead to and of course there's a constant worry there; meanwhile in society we talk in fairly positive terms about surveillance and then we're talking about actual cameras monitoring us. A phone is different, it knows where you are but not what you're doing, cameras know both, and Mastercard and Visa have a huge amount of information about your shopping patterns and so on.
It's true that the legislation hasn't really kept up with this and we need a good balance there. We have to have open data, accessible to be able to develop, while we as individuals should not feel monitored and controlled in everything we do.
Is IT security part of your discussions in Stockholm?
Yes, it's a huge discussion. For example we want to open up school sports halls to other community activities and then it comes back to security, what code systems to use to give people access, is it okay to have camera surveillance during that football match in the sports hall because if something happens you are responsible.
Security is one of the biggest questions when we discuss this, above all when we're talking about key and lock systems. There's not always a way to maintain this security balance, so then you have to go back and can perhaps not develop the way you want to.
How smart is your own life?
Oh, hahaha! “Really smart”, is what I want to answer, but then I have to scrutinize myself and think about what is smart and what is not smart.
I use the SL app a lot because I have to be on time for my metro-bus connection every day. At home there's a lot of tech, even if I am maybe not able to use it all. The children watch a lot of Netflix, computers… what other smart things are there?! Bank errands are only done on the phone these days, that's based on apps. My best app at work is Wunderlist, that has replaced post-it notes and everything. It's brilliant.
I can't leave without asking about one of the most important issues to many of The Local's readers: the housing situation in Stockholm. Will making the city smarter help solve the housing shortage?
We include this in our work. Our homes should be smart. I was there when they started building the city's first plus-energy apartment building a few weeks ago and that's a very smart building, solar cells, geothermal heating, storing energy to use it later when the weather gets colder.
We are building as never before in this city, it's great. Last year we built more than seven thousand homes, it's going to be even more this year, and we will meet our target of 40,000 new apartments by 2020 and more.
But we've also got really strict environmental requirements for new builds, and we're using technology more and more so that you can check your own water and energy supply in your apartment, because even though you might think that Stockholm has unlimited supply of fresh water, we still need to protect our water resources and energy consumption.
And all of this is of course reflected in the price, it is expensive. New builds are expensive because we set so high standards, but that's why it is also so important that we keep our current rental apartments while building new ones so that we've got both older and newer homes in Stockholm.
Edited for length and clarity.