A look into innovation hubs in Germany and the Netherlands
One thing I have found fascinating about smart cities throughout our trip is the idea of investing in innovation and knowledge. Examples of this were seen throughout the Netherlands and in Berlin. The ability to attract talent and start up companies came from cheap rent that provided space to work and potential to collaborate for all parties. Any ideas developed in these spaces for innovation could be tested in a few areas in the city in things known as living labs. Strijp-S in Eindhoven and Adlershof in Berlin both had some projects that were being tested in the area to see how useful any technology or project was and how it could be improved. Setting up hubs for innovation has many positive effects for the city. First of all, when people working on different projects have space to work around each other, it is more likely for them to share ideas, get feedback, and discuss solutions with others working in the same building. This can lead to solutions that could never be reached without collaboration. More innovation hubs can also give a city an upper hand for government funding since it is likely that local and global solutions for problems are most likely going to come from cities focused on innovation. Innovation hubs don’t need to be super complicated either, the main perk of these hubs would be cheap rent and open floor plans. This would attract start up companies that aren’t far enough along in the business process to start making money. When companies aren’t concerned with trying to make money to pay rent it is more likely that their work will be a higher quality. In Berlin we saw it as a common theme to provide cheap rent for startups and then when they get their feet off the ground they can move into larger office spaces on the same campus with a higher rent. The most effective innovation hubs had an open floor plan that gave the room a transparent and collaborative feeling. We saw this in Eindhoven’s microlab. The first floor was used for physical workspaces such as carpentry, art and design. Workshops could be rented on a weekly or monthly basis. Above this, many different kinds of companies ranging from startups to corporations had offices with glass windows and glass walls. This gave the space a collaborative creative feeling. On a larger scale, the business park at Adlershof combined many different businesses on a small campus. It even collaborated with a local university to allow students to contribute ideas and gain practical experience. The clean tech campus in Berlin also had a similar setup. There were different sections of the campus designated to startups, the more established businesses, then solid functioning businesses. The goal of the design was to provide space for a company to start up and develop all on one campus while maintaining loyalty to the area. I see this as huge plus for the local community. Many companies that develop on these campuses recognize they received a lot of aid from the beginning and will stay in the area. This can bring income, jobs, and inspiration to the community. Similar to Silicon Valley, once people see success in an area they want to develop there as well, gaining help and feedback along the way. We noticed a significant local impact of innovation systems when we visited A Smart Amsterdam. The organization of Hackathons provided the best solutions to local problems for the best price. Amsterdam used the lean startup approach for businesses and applied it to the city by allowing engineers, business people, policy makers, and tech gurus to come together and figure out a solution to a problem such as waste disposal. The solutions could then be tested in the area and altered to fit a more desirable outcome. This is similar to living lab techniques for city problems. This is why I believe innovation hubs like the ones seen in Germany and the Netherlands could be very beneficial to the RTP. Surrounded by NC State, Duke, Chapel Hill and various technical schools this area has a rich workforce. As startup hubs begin to emerge from the triangle area more students and locals are provided opportunities to develop ideas that can benefit the local community, region, country, and world. One very effective technique for solving problems on campus at UNC could be to implement a similar hackathon method that Amsterdam used. Allowing students a chance to solely dedicate themselves to problems seen at UNC could bring forth some very effective ideas.
A look into Essen’s history as a coal powerhouse and how the city turned green
We started out the day with a recap of the prior week we spent in The Hague and Eindhoven. We mainly discussed smart city aspects involving innovation and technological advancement. Then we made our way to Essen which contained Zollverein, the most modern coal mine in Europe during the 1930s. Many countries and coal producing regions would take visits to Zollverein to study the techniques used that made the coal mine more efficient than other mines. The facility was incredibly large and industrial. The inside housed large machines, conveyor belts, coal carts, and mine shafts. We started atop the main building overlooking the town of Essen and surrounding area. It was easy to see the vastness of the mine and understand how long it took miners to get to and from the wash station where they would start and end the day.
Next we took a look at one of the mining areas and sampled some of the tools miners used in the mines. Work techniques for breaking off coal evolved from a simple hammer and chisel to a safer more complex hammer and chisel to the jackhammer. The jackhammer was the heaviest and most dangerous tool. It kicked up a lot of dust which caused black lung and also sent workers home still shaking from the vibrations. Bad working conditions in mines was something I had known for a while but getting to see the environment out of context firsthand was startling. Eight hours a day would be spent in the mines and an additional 4-5 hours was spent traveling and washing causing many miners to just sleep in the mines for multiple days. We also learned how horses were used in the mines to carry loads of coal. Horses would stay 4-5 years at a time in stables in the mines. We concluded the visit to Zollverein by going to the loudest part of the mine where coal was dumped to lower level and sorted by workers. The noise was 118 decibels which is 2000 times louder than moderately loud speakers. Workers spent 8 hours a day here with no ear protection in shifts of 18 months at a time which left many of them practically deaf.
Zollverein was an important part of the history of Essen and prompted us for our next small tour which was an exhibit dedicated to Essen’s prize of being Europe’s green capital of 2017. This is surprising considering throughout the 19th and 20th century the area was a major contributor to global warming. After much destruction of the environment in the 19th century Essen recognized the problem and put in conservation and restoration programs to achieve a healthier environment. The exhibit featured park plans, animal exhibits, gardens, and forest samples. Essen and the Ruhr area actually took grade pride in leading the green revolution. A lot of the initiatives have come from locals with garden initiatives. The Ruhr area also plans on putting in a cycling superhighway as a main means of transport. The main goal the greening of the Ruhr area is for all citizens to live only a couple minutes from any parks or green space. This exhibit concluded our journey for the day.
Both Zollverein and the Essen exhibit were located on the same industrial grounds which is a unique way to display the change in mindset that has occurred in the area. What used to be an industrial area has shifted to an eco friendly hub for green space. If it was not for the industrial roots and environmental degradation caused it is likely that Essen would not be the green capital of Europe. This is a prime example of how an old town has changed from high impact to low impact on the environment and maintained citizen participation. I think the US can use Essen and the Ruhr area as a guide to creating livable healthy environments from old unusable coal mines.
A look at urban farming, sustainability, and standardization
The day started with a visit to a one year old urban farm called The New Farm centered in The Hague, Netherlands. This urban farm is located atop a six story building used for housing different office spaces. The rooftop and top floor were completely converted into a large aquaponic system containing both a greenhouse and fish tanks. By allowing the plants above to use the nutrients found in fish waste, aquaponics combines two different ecosystems into one to create an efficient use of resources. Thousands of tilapia were grown in the tanks and their waste water was taken through a large filter which then feeds into tubes to be taken to plant soil. The rooftop contained many different kinds of produce such as basil, cilantro, tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, lettuce, and many other leafy greens, all fueled by the nutrients of fish waste. The entire aquaponic system recycled around 90 percent of its water. This resource efficient farm can be seen as an example for future food initiatives in urban areas. As the global population grows, more and more people need food and gravitate towards cities. This leads to questions of space and food production, which are both answered by urban farms. The only drawbacks are that they require a lot of money and energy to start. This urban farm combines agricultural and fish production to efficiently feed the planet as the population grows.
To finish the day we stopped by NEN, which is a company centered around standardization. Although it seems complicated, standardization is basically agreements among many parties affiliated in producing a product, idea, or system. The goal is to minimize conflict when developing ideas and allow for the acceptance of these new products in different areas, whether its regions, countries, or continents. Some examples are bolt sizes or USB ports on computers. In talking personally with a NEN employee, we learned that the most complicated part of standardization is making all parties agree on an outcome in a timely manner. This process can be difficult but it is necessary for allowing cities to replicate systems that are known to be successful in other smart cities.
When moving towards a smart city it important to take steps that enhance the quality of life for its inhabitants. We saw three examples of this in food production, sustainable building use, and standardization practices.