Ghent is the third-largest city in Belgium after Brussels and Antwerp. The capital of the East Flanders region is known for its university and cultural diversity, and for its beautiful pedestrianised centre full of medieval architecture. But there is also a very modern side to Ghent, which is one of Europe’s most advanced smart cities. Read more about its strategy here!
The wise city: Sustainable digital collaboration
Ghent is currently undertaking a digital revolution in order to become a smarter city. This includes sustainable collaboration platforms, digital counters for citizen services, and artificial intelligence. To achieve this, Ghent is asking stakeholders such as entrepreneurs, citizens, and academia to provide anonymised big data. This flow of data will inform all urban systems and contribute to convenience and sustainability in urban planning.
The city sees data as a strategic asset and as key for making decisions in the smart city. Open data in particular plays an important role in the city for generating knowledge. “We know that data are not neutral, that they include interpretation, but they continue to give us something to go on as regards the complex urban environment. They are approaching something which resembles a common language which most players in this environment can understand”, the city explains on its website.
Ghent continues to work on projects that use data from multiple stakeholders, collecting, processing, and visualising results based on larger data volumes. This can include measuring real-time behaviour and combining different data flows. For example, the city is looking into urban crowdedness. This was particularly useful to minimise crowding during the COVID pandemic, but it also serves to understand how busy the city centre and urban parks can get.
In the local dialect, Ghent is described as a “wise city”, which is an alternative translation for “smart city”. Here, the citizen is the main actor that gets to define what urban life looks like, always informed by data.
The future city: Placing citizens at the heart
Ghent has also made a point of the importance of individual approaches to the “smart city”. Rather than copying other cities, the Belgian town has looked at its own trajectory and thought deeply about what a future city should look like. This starts from current social challenges, placing citizens at the heart of the smart city. Its most important goal is to reconnect people with their environment and the city, making citizens responsible for their environment once again and providing better means, technologies, services, and events in the urban environment.
Rather than focusing on technology as a goal in itself, Ghent sees it as an enabler for solving social challenges and as an opportunity to resolve long-standing difficulties in cities in an innovative manner. In its Smart Citizens concept, the city focuses on how everyone can access technology and networks by providing affordable, accessible services and offering open participation tools. This circles back to the collective wisdom of the city. “Every single one of the stakeholders of the city has its opinion and its expertise. A municipality does therefore not always have the final say about all aspects of urban life. All these local actors are doomed to cooperate. As an authority, we must give room to citizen’s initiatives that are constituting a step towards the city of the future.”
Citizen involvement is seen as an accelerator for the intelligent city in Ghent. For example, the city launched a special crowdfunding platform in 2015 to increase citizen involvement in the co-creation of the Smart city of Ghent. Everyone is invited to suggest projects with a societal benefit for the city via the platform crowdfunding.ghent, initiating and sharing ideas to generate funding. This has meant that citizens are very involved with the identification of innovative and sustainable initiatives in the city. Mostly, the platform is used for cultural and social initiatives. But there have also been multiple green initiatives that got funding over the years, for example an initiative that encourages edible streets and one that stimulates urban farming.
The living lab city: Improving green spaces and technologies
By making databases available to everybody, Ghent is a Living Lab that allows anyone to develop new services that benefit the city. For example, the city’s Public Open Space Living Lab is focusing on urban green users and the high societal value of green spaces. The Lab is looking at a system of places and their virtual and social counterparts, such as Zuidpark, a public park and square that connects the newly built library of the future with administrative buildings, a shopping mall, and the university.
Researchers are looking into the potential of integrating more technology into the park to improve its quality and form a tranquil, recreational experience, which could then be extended to nearby Muinkpark and Muinkaai. In the end, the city would have a loop of green spaces. By looking into park users’ attitudes, beliefs, and behaviours and testing virtual and augmented reality tools, as well as remote and ubiquitous environmental sensing, the quality of life in urban parks will be improved in collaboration with park users.
Another Living Lab in the city focuses on food and water in the city, setting up a testing facility for food companies. This mini-food factory with a water treatment room will allow both food processors and water technology providers to test alternative, innovative technologies on a representative scale. One of the challenges to be investigated is the potential reuse of process water in urban food processing facilities. The Living Lab helps companies to map the economic, ecological, and social impacts of technologies. It brings together many local stakeholders.
The green city: Car-free city centre since 1996
With a target of being climate neutral by 2050, Ghent has implemented many environmental measures, addressing vehicle congestion and air quality problems early on. Currently, it is working on the renovation of its urban heating system, on an interactive solar map that supports the uptake of photovoltaic power, and on free coaching for those companies that need and use the most energy.
And since 1996, Ghent has a car-free city centre that has continued to inspire many other European cities. The idea was to tackle traffic congestion, improve pedestrian and cyclist safety, and provide better air quality. It quickly became clear that the car-free zone contributed to making the city centre more attractive on many levels, from public transport to regeneration efforts, turning central Ghent into a major tourism and shopping destination. Even decades ago, Ghent collaborated with different stakeholders to make sure the car-free city centre would be accepted. This meant working on additional initiatives such as bike hire, park and ride routes, and support for local businesses.
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