Smartovkas and Finest Twin Cities—How Estonia Is Creating Smart Cities

Smartovka. Photo by Tartu Smart City Lab
Smartovka. Photo by Tartu Smart City Lab

Less than a month ago the climate agreement was concluded in Paris, and it challenges both city planners and scientists to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as energy efficient and smart solutions are a big part of the deal.

As it happens, teams in Tallinn and Tartu are working on making Estonian cities smarter. In Tartu it is done by turning khrushchyovkas into smartovkas, as the University of Tartu (UT) participates in the EU’s Horizon 2020 Smart Cities and Communities Lighthouse project SmartEnCity. The project is all about reconstructing cities into smart energy-efficient communities.

So far, the smart city solutions in the world have been used mainly for new buildings and city districts; one complete solution is, for example, the city of Songdo in South Korea. Rein Ahas, Professor at the UT Department of Geography, one of the developers of the smart city concept in Estonia, said that rebuilding an old city is much more complicated technologically and organisationally because there are conflicts of principles and interests regarding materials, heritage protection, accepting new technologies, property ownership, social issues, logistics and various other topics.

Yet, old apartment buildings will be turned green in three cities: Victoria-Gasteiz (Spain), Sønderborg (Denmark) and Tartu (Estonia). The working group of the Department of Geography at the University of Tartu will renovate 23 Krushchev-era houses, which were built in the 1960–1970s. The houses are named after Nikita Khrushchev, who led the Soviet Union in 1953–1964, and they were built mainly with the consideration of saving space—so it’s no wonder that energy efficiency was not a concern back then, to say the least.

Today, the UT Department of Geography’s working group is trying to develop the smart city business models needed for implementing the new technologies, smart solutions, and improving the application of sensor technologies. They are planning to equip roofs with smart censors, reuse energy for heating water, implement smart lightning solutions, create censors to measure noise and pollution, and develop smart homes inside the flats as well. The uniqueness lies in combining several smart technologies that will offer both energy efficiency and convenience, which means reducing energy consumption from 270 kWh per m2\a to 90kWh per m2\a. As more than 100 million people throughout the whole Eastern Europe live in Soviet-era buildings, this project could be replicated in other cities in years to come, if it is successful.
Nevertheless, the true challenge will be engaging the local communities according to Rene Tõnisson, one of the leaders of the project from Tartu Smart City Lab. New solutions need to be created but also implemented. Yet, as the majority of tenants are from the older generations, it might be quite a task, Tõnisson argues. One time he got carried away while explaining the pros of green transport, saying that there was no need for cars after smartovkas would be built. “Someone said, ‘Speak for yourself, young man!’ so there’s still a lot of work to do but who said life should be easy,” he laughs optimistically.
What is more, Tõnisson’s mission includes not only the elderly but also the younger generations, as street art will be used hand in hand with science—Tõnisson hopes that street artists’ work will be displayed on Tartu’s new smartovkas.

At the same time, a two-hour drive away, the Tallinn University of Technology (TUT) is busy with joining Tallinn and Helsinki who are to become the finest twin cities, as the Smart TwinCity project FINEST Twins is being developed. With this project, TUT’s Ragnar Nurkse School of Innovation and Governance and Finland’s Aalto University have reached the second round of teaming top science centres, which is an EU measure for providing countries with centres of excellence.

In short, they are trying to create a cross-border top city centre; the cities with their living, economic and innovative environments being their research topics. The test environment is a so-called living lab where near-commercialisation innovations as well as e-state solutions and other innovations related to urbanisation and cities’ ecosystems can be tested.

If funded, this centre would be both the first cross-border smart city centre of excellence and the first cross-border twin city according to project manager Jarmo Eskelinen from Finland. TUT’s Professor Rainer Kattel says that both research and real life experiments will be performed in the centre. Reducing transport and traffic flows and jams with the help of information technologies is only one of the examples.
Estonians respond with unexpected optimism when they are asked about plan B—to be applied if Teaming funding is not granted. “Of course there’s plan B but also C, D, E and F,” states Ralf-Martin Soe, Finest twins’ project manager at TUT.

He assures that the test lab will be built either way, as several pilot projects are planned with various partners, ranging from projects in harbours to partnerships with information technology companies. Only this month, Cityntel—a smart street light solution using technology created in TUT—announced its cooperation with the Asian metropolises of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya. Currently, the novel solutions have been installed to Tartu and the Tallinn Science Park Tehnopol. The first foreign projects have been also initiated in Germany, Finland, and Denmark.

This article was supported by the European Regional Development Fund through Estonian Research Council.