All posts by Joseph Womble

Creating Smarter Government

How can governments lead the way into the future?

Smart government is the impetus for any truly smart city. Citizen bottom-up initiatives to make cities smarter cannot easily occur if government is not also involved through top-down policies and through financially supporting bottom-up initiatives. The most significant problem with creating smart cities and addressing climate change in the United States is the rampant idea that government should take a completely hands-off approach. But a hands-off approach does not constitute a government, and it’s certainly not what constitutes a forward-looking society. A smart government looks to the future, embracing new ideas and technologies that will be considered essential in twenty years, rather than relying on the status quo. A smart government works to increase overall economic growth and individual economic opportunity through investment in innovation. Smart governments, especially at the local level, exist all across Germany and the Netherlands and have many lessons for cities in the United States.

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The Reichstag government building is an excellent example of government setting an example in order to achieve a goal. The Reichstag runs completely carbon-neutral, which is impressive considering some of its older architecture and how often it is used.

When we learned at the beginning of our Study Abroad about Freiburg’s strong climate initiatives and their success, it quickly became clear that a smart government can have a positive impact in several ways. First of all, when a government takes initiative on a project, it sets a positive example for individuals and private businesses. Freiburg’s city government has done this through pledging to be a climate-neutral region by 2050 and already reducing their carbon footprint significantly more than Germany as a whole. Freiburg’s city government has set an example for its citizens and businesses through installing rooftop solar on government buildings, increasing recycling in the city from 25% to 69%, and through extensions of the reliable and impressive public transport network. When a government sets ambitious goals like Freiburg’s goal of a climate-neutral region by 2050, it is essential that those words are backed up by meaningful actions; otherwise, citizens and businesses begin to think that said goal is not realistic and is therefore not worth supporting. Freiburg’s commitment to creating a green city is backed up by the government’s actions, leading private industry to create similar commitments.

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The Schwarzwald-Stadion in Freiburg is outfitted with solar panels bought by citizens, encouraging social capital, social entrepreneurship, and personal and economic investment in environmental initiatives.

When a smart government is working towards a goal, it recognizes that it must bring in the voices of as many citizens as possible to determine specific actions to be taken. Citizen-financed renewable energy projects can be the key to achieving Freiburg’s 2050 carbon-neutral goal while doing two things: increasing citizen involvement and giving citizens an economic incentive for being more involved. One of the best examples of this is the Freiburg football stadium, Schwarzwald-Stadion, being outfitted with solar panels. Citizens also voted for a new stadium to be built in 2018. The new stadium will be outfitted with solar panels, and when citizens purchase tickets, they will also pay for the solar panels. This takes social interaction to a new level, likely encouraging those who purchase tickets to support the goal of carbon neutrality and gain a greater appreciation for those around them. A lack of social capital amongst communities can promote extreme political movements, so projects like these can achieve even more beyond carbon-neutrality.

Smart government can encourage alternative forms of energy, like wind. This allows initiatives like creating a climate-neutral region to be done much more quickly and easily.

Throughout Germany and the Netherlands, public-private partnerships promote innovation and creativity. These partnerships often involve financial support from governments, especially in the first several years of the partnership. In exchange, governments impose regulations on private industry in terms of what they innovate and the overall economy gains from private innovations. If risks are not taken, innovation cannot occur; therefore, shared risk between the government and private industry encourages innovation. Public-private partnerships also help create clusters in regions and cities (such as Freiburg being a cluster for clean technology). It is very possible that clusters will be the basis for the economy of the future. Right now, European governments and especially the European Union, are using public-private partnerships to create clusters, ensuring Europe is on the cutting edge.

Small, incremental steps towards goals can work in some instances, but bold and forward-thinking action towards a goal is something a smart government must embrace. Freiburg’s government has been a force for bold change in the past, from its implementation of a pedestrian area in the city center in the 1970’s to the transformation of a car bridge to a bike bridge in the 1990’s. Both of these actions, especially the change in the 1970’s, went radically against the trend of that time, which was to form cities around cars rather than people. Now, Freiburg is seen as a green, smart city that invested in the future. That’s what a forward-looking city is – a city that will be hailed twenty or forty years from now as smart and innovative despite not always following present trends. Freiburg got where it is by focusing on people and sacrificing temporary comfort for long-term sustainability. Those may not make for the most popular political decisions, but if U.S. city governments are to be smarter, they must consider the city’s needs past their four-year term. Bold governmental action can equate with political unpopularity, especially in the United States, so in some cases electoral reform is necessary to allow for more forward-thinking, bold politicians. There are many ways to create smarter government, all through government anticipating needs and leading – something municipalities and states in the United States could learn from.

-Joseph Womble

Automotive Campus: Creating a Greener Future

Electric vehicles and innovation ecosystems will power our economic and environmental future

After traveling via train to Eindhoven yesterday, we spent our first full day in and around Eindhoven today (July 5). Within fifteen minutes of leaving the city, we were biking through the countryside, alongside a beautiful canal and a seemingly ceaseless row of old trees. Eventually, we came upon Helmond, sometimes called the “automotive city” because of its role in vehicle innovation. In Helmond, we visited the “Automotive Campus,” where we listened to two presentations focused on the future of vehicles and their intersection with smart cities. We also were able to look around a workshop on the Automotive Campus where students from Fontys University (in Eindhoven) build their own electric cars, one of which drove to Berlin with only one recharge. While we didn’t learn much about the technical aspects of these student-built electric cars, it was impressive to witness an example of the hands-on learning that students in the Netherlands participate in to further their education and to hear about the companies that financially support this technical, hands-on form of learning. We picked up a great deal of information during our first day in Eindhoven, but I thought some of the best insights were on the future of electric vehicles and innovation ecosystems.

Just ten minutes out of Eindhoven, we already reached beautiful green areas surrounding the city.
We were able to bike alongside a beautiful canal for much of the bike ride to the Automotive Campus.
We arrived at about 1:00 at the Automotive Campus.

Both presenters prefaced the importance of transitioning to electric vehicles by mentioning the impending threat to the Netherlands from climate change. While Eindhoven would be safe, most other major Dutch cities could be underwater in mere decades if no major action occurs to combat climate change. That’s why the innovation occurring at the Automotive Campus is so crucial. Our first presentation focused on smart and green mobility, with our presenter Daniel introducing us to facts and goals for the Netherlands. The largest ambition for the nation is having one million electric vehicles (EVs) on the road in 2025, a huge increase from the current amount of 113,000 registered EVs. It’s pretty appealing for the Dutch to embrace EVs because gas costs are very high here, making electric a better economic and environmental option. Along with the increase in EVs will come an increase in public and private chargepoints for EVs, although our presenter emphasized that he thought the main increase would occur in private chargepoints (either at workplaces or homes).

After our presentations at the Automotive Campus, we went to a workshop where engineers and Fontys University students were piecing together electric cars.
We left the day having learned a great deal about Automotive Campus, Fontys, and all their partners. All in all, this day was fascinating and a huge success.

When electric vehicles are mentioned, the conversation often focuses around cars. But the Netherlands is truly looking to the future by investing in heavy duty electric powertrains and e-buses. As of now, 43 e-buses operate in Eindhoven and 100 operate in Amsterdam. The most complex question around e-buses is the time it takes to recharge the buses, but there seems to also be a solution for that in the Netherlands. Faster chargers, also known as superchargers, can charge a bus in as little as twenty minutes. Fast recharging could make e-buses a more viable option for public transit across the world. Because of more and more e-buses, public transportation will cause less pollution and more cars can be taken off the road, decreasing traffic and increasing efficiency.

Here is the electric engine of a beautiful white convertible, showing that while expensive, it is possible to move from a typical gas vehicle to an electric one.
Fontys students work together on elements of their “homemade” electric car.
Students listen as more is explained about building electric cars and about some specific successes of Fontys students.

In these two presentations, we also learned more about innovation ecosystems and knowledge clustering, an important part of smart cities that we have already looked at earlier in the trip. Our second presenter, Bram, discussed the so-called “triple helix,” otherwise known as the cooperation between knowledge institutes, government, and industry. This close cooperation allows innovation to occur in an environment where it is in the best interests of economic growth as well as individuals’ well-being. The triple helix is a form of knowledge clustering, with different parties bringing different viewpoints to the table and helping to create a smarter region, country, and world. These concepts are economic boons for startups and innovation and could be successfully implemented more in cities across the United States and the rest of the world.

-Joseph Womble


From mobility to housing, Vauban, a district of Freiburg, has created a vibrant, efficient and dense community

On June the 7th, the fourth day of our Summer Burch program, the nearly thirty people that comprises our group cycled about twenty kilometers between Freiburg, Reiselfeld, and Vauban. In the kilometers in between, we witnessed beautiful nature, undisturbed by hordes of suburbs. Thanks to impressive bicycling infrastructure, even in rural areas, the trip was a huge success. Attempting to stay in a single file line on our bikes, we first stopped in Reiselfeld and later stopped in Vauban, both expertly planned districts outside of Freiburg. This blog post will focus primarily on Vauban, from its remarkable mobility to its diversity of housing projects.

In this image, you can see the main road that passes by Vauban – not through it. Even on this main road (this only one near the district), you can see that well-maintained bicycle infrastructure and the pedestrian-friendly features.
Here you can see another view of our bike ride to Vauban. From the beautiful landscape to the well-maintained bicycle infrastructure, this was a very pleasant ride.
In this photograph, we are cycling from one district to the next – from Reiselfeld to Vauban and all the while experiencing the beautiful and well-maintained countryside.

Our group leader, Stefan, who biked with us and helped us understand the area, explained the necessity of both discouraging individual car ownership and giving rewards for using public transit and bicycles. Vauban successfully embraces both of these concepts and thereby reduces car ownership to a fraction of its population. Of that population, many people often use the tram instead of their car because tram stops are more convenient than their car, which cannot be permanently parked in front of their home. Vauban has done several things to ensure that this pro-communal transit concept is successful. Firstly, the trams come about every seven minutes. When tram arrivals are kept under ten minutes, ridership is more likely to be high because the tram becomes more convenient for individual riders than taking their own car. When cars do drive in Vauban, they are generally guests on the road. Everyone else has right of way most of the time – cyclists, children, and pedestrians. This encourages other modes of transit over cars and provides for a safe environment for families. Vauban’s expert planning with a focus on the tram, bikes, and pedestrians, provides a number of lessons for United States suburbs on mobility.

Here is a view of a public space that the citizens of Vauban decided would be a community garden and green space rather than a parking deck. If sentiment changes within a community, this area could become a parking deck.
This is a view of a street in Vauban. Notice that there are no cars – parked along the street or in carports. This allows a safer, more child and bicycle-friendly community.

Vauban’s variety of housing also provides many insights for the United States. Rather than creating a suburb with individual houses, large yards, and a lack of social interaction, Vauban creates high-density housing that encourages social interaction and discourages crime. However, rather than creating identical housing projects that eliminate a sense of identity, Vauban attempts to create a huge range of housing. One of the most interesting buildings we looked at was a mixed-use building. Some of the building was used by people who financed the cost of their apartment entirely on their own, other rooms were social housing, and other rooms were used for people with disabilities and the elderly. This cohabitation helps people realize the importance of relationships with people of different incomes, backgrounds, and experiences, something sorely lacking in the individualistic culture of America. Another interesting housing project was a largely subsidized set of housing in the district, paid for by a group whose mission centers around ensuring housing for everyone. In every housing project in the district, bottom-up decision making plays a key role and citizens are on the front lines, versus the top-down approach considered the default in so many other places.

This is a picture of a building with Pippy Longstocking painted on the side. This art is a symbol to the people of Vauban of their cultural and social identity.
Here is an example of another housing community in Vauban. This project brings together people of all different socioeconomic backgrounds to achieve higher levels of social capital.

Consider rethinking what you view as sustainable development. In your community, are new suburbs encouraging sustainable housing and transit with significant social capital? Or is there something you could do to make your town more like Vauban?

-Joseph Womble