SmartEnCity Story


When a positive decision was made back in 2015 to fund the SmartEnCity project from the H2020 framework, we didn’t really know what to expect or how exactly the process was going to look like. Such a huge project – 5 cities and 38 partners involved, more than 6 years of activities ahead of us worth 28 MEUR – all with the aim of moving towards Smart Zero Carbon Cities. After celebrating the not so small feat of being able to start the project at all, realization quickly dawned on us that now, it’s time to actually make it happen.

But how to start a journey towards carbon neutrality together with 3 Lighthouse Cities and 2 Follower Cities that are so different from each other? How to get on the same page in the first place when the cities all have their specific strengths and weaknesses, their cultural, economic, legal etc. specifics? Vitoria-Gasteiz joined the Covenant of Mayors in 2008, Sonderborg in 2012 and Tartu in 2014. Whereas Vitoria-Gasteiz has a population of ca. 250,000, Sonderborg has ca. 75,000 and Tartu 95,000 people. Not to mention the fact that, together with the follower cities from Asenovgrad and Lecce, the cities seem to be located as far apart from each other as possible in the EU context, implying different weather conditions, different energy needs, different solutions that can be applied... Each city basically needs to follow the path to carbon neutrality on their own, right? Well, turns out, this is not entirely the case.

Conceptual framework

Aligning cities’ decarbonization goals and smart city approaches needs an overarching concept that helps to shape visions, objectives, plans and interventions – all that is needed for such an ambitious urban transition. In the case of SmartEnCity, the concept of Smart Zero Carbon Cities was developed. Together, it was stated that “A Smart Zero Carbon City is a resource-efficient urban environment where carbon footprint is nearly eliminated; energy demand is kept to a minimum through the use of demand control technologies that save energy and promote raised awareness; energy supply is entirely renewable and clean; and resources are intelligently managed by aware and efficient citizens, as well as both public and private stakeholders”. Be sustainable, be smart, be resource-efficient, be inclusive – a piece of cake, really, isn’t it?

Turns out being a smart city is hard. You need to come up with elaborate plans for drastically reducing energy demand and maximizing renewable energy supply, covering all sectors from the built environment and mobility to ICTs and more. You have to find the right people to involve in the process right from the start so you have a team to make plans with in the first place, hoping they’ll stay for the ride. You have to think of financing schemes and business models for actually making it happen. You actually have to make it happen, implementing smart city solutions and monitoring the impact they bring about in order to decide on the scaling up of solutions. Of course, don’t forget to involve the citizens on every step of the way! You have to inspire a change in people’s mindsets, encouraging them to act more environmentally friendly. Smart cities really are superhero cities. 

Luckily enough, the masterminds of the SmartEnCity project came up with a few useful tools to help cities along the way. The most important one of these is the Cities4ZERO methodology or “the urban transformation strategy for cities’ decarbonisation”. Basically, it reflects how the Smart Zero Carbon City concept was implemented in the Lighthouse and Follower cities in the SmartEnCity project and puts this experience into a framework that other cities can use as well in their transformation processes towards becoming carbon neutral. The main input for coming up with the Cities4ZERO methodology came from the planning, implementation, monitoring and replication activities of the SmartEnCity project, so let’s take a moment to briefly look back at what happened in the first years.

SmartEnCity recap

With the official start of the SmartEnCity project in February 2016, the work really began. The three Lighthouse City teams together with the two Follower Cities worked together to define a shared SmartEnCity regeneration strategy, which later became the Cities4ZERO methodology. This common framework was adopted by the Lighthouse City teams based on the local contexts and demo site specifics and was used for implementing the smart city solutions that were promised to be demonstrated. You can read all about the Lighthouse City solutions in the SmartEnKIT, covering energy efficiency, mobility, ICTand citizen engagement solutions. The common methodology that was collaboratively developed came into play again when it was time to monitor and evaluate the solutions that were implemented in the demo sites. This helped to exploit synergies among the three Lighthouse City projects and harmonize assessment processes.

This brings us to the last, but one might say the most important phase – encouraging the replication and scale up of the SmartEnCity transformation processes. This is why you’re probably reading this recap of the SmartEnCity project in the first place – because we can now share all the tools and resources that might interest other cities and city stakeholders through our SmartEnKIT! We have established the SmartEnCity Network that now brings together more than 60 ambitious small and medium-sized cities across Europe who are proud to say: “You really don’t have to be a capital city to make a major difference!” We have prepared dozens of informative newsletters, bulletins, scientific articles, webinars, academiesand videos that are now a testament to how the project has unfolded over the years. We have developed various strategies and planning tools that helped us (and now hopefully, others too) along the way. 

Integrated energy planning 

Replication efforts in SmartEnCity were not only aimed at other cities – we don’t only want the others to learn from and be inspired by the SmartEnCity transformation processes, we ourselves want to learn from them too! As such, the three Lighthouse Cities and the two Follower Cities of SmartEnCity set out to prepare Integrated Energy Plans (IEPsand replication roadmaps for themselves, building on the project experience, extending it to other districts and planning further actions in the cities as a whole. All this for the sake of moving closer and closer towards becoming Smart Zero Carbon Cities. 

By now, you probably have a good idea of the kind of methodology the cities used for preparing these replication plans – Cities4ZERO was now put into action. The Cities4ZERO framework has altogether 3 phases and 16 steps. For completing their integrated energy plans and replication roadmaps, the SmartEnCity partners went through the first phase – the strategic phase – along with the first six steps, i.e. engage, analyse, diagnose, envision, plan and integrate. Here’s what the Lighthouse and Follower Cities did while taking each of these steps, after which we’ll come back to the replicability potential of the whole process. For more information about Cities4ZERO phases and steps, you are welcome to start here.

                             Overview of the strategic phase of the Cities4ZERO methodology (D2.8)

     1. Engage

We started off by creating local partnerships in each of the Lighthouse and Follower Cities to lead the replication roadmap planning process. These steering groups were mostly led by municipalities and involved partners from the industry, academia and NGOs, so that all relevant local stakeholders were engaged right from the start. However, the local context largely dictated the set-up of the steering group so the processes would be coordinated in the best possible way. For instance, in Sonderborg, a public-private partnership called ProjectZero led the strategic process as this partnership combines the public sector, industry and academia and was best suited to ensure the involvement of the local community as well. 

     2. Analyse

By now, we knew who we’re going to tackle the process with, but where were we in the first place? Well, someone had to do it – we went through all the existing literature, documents, policies, regulations and strategies at our cities’ level to collect as much background information as possible. The focus was on the most relevant systems of the cities in the context of decarbonization – local conditions, energy supply and consuming patterns, building stock and retrofitting needs, urban mobility, ICT infrastructures and services, citizen and stakeholder engagement. The resulting city characterization gave us a better idea about the socio-economic and sectorial features and status of the cities along with city indicators and carbon emissions baselines. If all of this sounds very time-consuming and difficult, you’re in luck – our city check-up assessment will tell you exactly where you are with your city’s progress.  

     3. Diagnose

To support the cities’ strategic planning processes, the Cities4ZERO methodology foresees participatory Foresight methods. As such, once the stakeholders were engaged and city information was gathered, we asked ourselves: “What do we want to achieve?”. This strategic question differed in each of Lighthouse and Follower Cities based on the local city context and needs. For instance, in case of Tartu, the aim was to find out how to reduce CO2 emissions by 40% by 2030 as part of the objective to renew the existing SEAP into a SECAP (Sustainable Energy and Climate Action Plan). Combined with in-depth SWOT analyses of the cities together with their specific strengths and weaknesses as well as external opportunities and threats, the input was then in place for the next step – organizing scenario workshops.

     4. Envision

Proceeding from the previously defined strategic question within the agreed timeframe, the aim was now to co-create a preferred vision for the cities. This was done by organizing local scenario workshops in each of the cities that brought together city planners, politicians, businesses, service providers, academia and community representatives. Working in groups, the stakeholders applied their expertise and points of view to describe various future scenarios of the city and to work towards consensus in finding the preferred scenario and course of action that the city should take. By the end of the scenario development processes, the cities had managed to define agreed city visions and increase a sense of ownership among its stakeholders. 

     5. Plan

All the background work had now been done and it was time to develop the cities’ plans that would pave the way towards making the preferred visions a reality. More specifically, the visions fed into specific goals in strategic plans, which in turn translated into action plans with specific actions, key projects, responsibilities, budgets and timeframes for development. In the case of SmartEnCity, the emphasis of these actions was on the energy sector, so we called the resulting plans Integrated Energy Plans (IEPs). For quantifying energy systems for different ambitions and timeframes in the IEP process, two tools were of particular help for the cities – the energyPLAN and the Energy Balance Tool. Using these tools, the cities learned which project proposals were most relevant for the cities decarbonization goals. 

    6. Integrate

At the end of the day, it’s the local authority’s task to guarantee the legal, administrative and physical conditions to deploy the IEP and ensure it is fully integrated in the municipal planning instruments. This was the focus of this step – gaining City Governments’ approval and securing commitment. For instance, in case of Sonderborg, ProjectZero presented as a result of steps 1-5 50 key projects to the municipality as part of its Roadmap2025. After analysing all the proposals, Sonderborg Municipality released a booklet, stating all the agreements and commitments. After developing its IEP, Asenovgrad made the effort to integrate this plan into their wider urban regeneration strategy. 

It’s also good to know that the Cities4ZERO and the Covenant of Mayors frameworks are mutually supportive – several of the SmartEnCity partner cities have already or are in the process of combining the methodologies and adapting their IEPs into SECAPs. For Tartu, their IEP was also a SECAP right from the start, whereas Lecce and Vitoria-Gasteiz are now updating their IEPs to become SECAPs. 

Cities4ZERO replication potential

There we have it – all the partner cities with their specific context, conditions, expectations and ambitions followed these six steps to draft their integrated energy plans and replication roadmaps. All tweaked the process based on their needs, all arrived at different results – e.g. it was a Sustainable Energy and Climate Action Plan 2030 for Tartu; Integrated Energy Transition Action Plan 2030 for Vitoria-Gasteiz and Climate Neutrality Roadmap 2025 for Sonderborg. This only goes to prove that however much influenced by local factors and the environment, the technical, legal and social barriers and opportunities, cities can still follow the same methodology and arrive at somewhat different, but still comparable results. That’s the key to benefitting from the Cities4ZERO methodology – you have to make it your own!

Of course, this is not to say all the work has now been done – demo site interventions completed, replication tools prepared, plans drafted for the post-project phase. As already mentioned, Cities4ZERO consists of 16 steps, not just the 6 steps completed by the SmartEnCity partners so far. As such, it is a work in progress for us too! The cities will now go on with the design stage, framing and designing the future key projects in detail, and the intervention and assessment stage, implementing and evaluating all the foreseen interventions. 

To be honest, the work is not done even once all the 16 steps have been completed. The Cities4ZERO methodology can be followed step-by-step, but it should definitely not be seen as a linear process that comes to an end. Instead, it’s a circular process that iterates in cycles. Some objectives become partially obsolete. Some key projects need to be readjusted to better contribute to the objectives. Some interventions turn out to be a great success, some not so much. As such, cities can work through the 3 phases and 16 steps over and over again, readjusting their strategy to move closer to the co-formulated city vision. Ultimately, to move closer to becoming a Smart Zero Carbon City. We’re quite sure the work doesn’t end there either. That’s the thing with smart city ambitions – you can never be smart enough, can you?

One thing is for sure, though – we really believe Cities4ZERO can help others too. The framework is suitable for any kind of city, regardless of its diverse local needs. At the end of the day, all municipalities are facing common challenges in their urban transformation processes. Of course, city context matters, and Cities4ZERO allows for that flexibility, making sure that the cities take into account their specific context when designing strategies and tailoring them to local city needs. Moreover, methodologies are there to help us, but naturally, it is really up to people to actually make it happen. It is thus crucial that each local steering group with representatives from all relevant stakeholders takes responsibility and ownership of the decarbonization process. Once you have the right people and the right tools, realizing the vision (co-created, of course!) is not that far away anymore.

How to use & tips

Where to go from here? We advise you to check out the Travel Guide for Cities – the SmartEnCity story, the SmartEnKIT tutorial and the Travel Guide give you all the basics you need to start exploring the SmartEnKIT tools!

Link to more information 

Read the full story here - SmartEnKIT downloadable content